What's really in the Downing Street memos?

Military analysis.
June 15 2005 6:00 PM

Let's Go to the Memo

What's really in the Downing Street memos?

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In other respects, though, the memo doesn't make as strong a case against Bush as some have claimed. Read in conjunction with the six other British documents, the case weakens further. The memos do not show, for instance, that Bush simply invented the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam posed a threat to the region. In fact, the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims.

For instance, at one point during the July 23 meeting, the British ministers are discussing some of the risks of going to war. Saddam might "use his WMD on Kuwait," one official cautions. "Or on Israel," adds the defense secretary.

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An Iraq "options paper," dated March 8, 2002, states: "Despite sanctions, Iraq continues to develop WMD" (though it adds that intelligence on the matter is "poor").

The July 21 Cabinet Office report published by the SundayTimes last weekend—titled "Iraq: Conditions for Military Action"—raises an intriguing strategic concern: that a post-Saddam government might still want weapons of mass destruction. "Even if regime change is a necessary condition for controlling Iraqi WMD," the memo warns, "it is certainly not a sufficient one." The "options paper" makes the same point: "Even a representative [Iraqi] government could seek to acquire WMD … as long as Iran and Israel retain their WMD."

In a personal message to Blair, dated March 22, 2002, political director Peter Ricketts writes that, although Iraq's nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs "have not, as far as we know, been stepped up," they "are extremely worrying." What has changed, he emphasizes, "is not so much the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programmes but our tolerance of them post-11 September."

The implicit point of these passages is this: These top officials genuinely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—and that they constituted a threat. They believed that the international community had to be sold on the matter. But not all sales pitches are consciously deceptive. The salesmen in this case turned out to be wrong; their goods were bunk. But they seemed to believe in their product at the time.

What of the second half of the key quote from the Downing Street Memo of July 23—that Bush wanted war, justified by WMD and terrorism, but "the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy"? It's worth noting that "fixed around" is not synonymous with "fixed." To say that Bush and his aides "fixed" intelligence—as some Web sites claim the memo shows—would mean that they distorted or falsified it. To say "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" means that they were viewing, sifting, and interpreting intelligence in a way that would strengthen the case for their policy, for going to war.

Either way—"fixed" or "fixed around"—Bush and his aides had decided to let policy shape intelligence, not the other way around; they were explicitly politicizing intelligence.

But that doesn't necessarily mean they thought their claims were false. Murray Kempton, the late great New York newspaper columnist, once strolled out of a federal courtroom where some mobster was on trial and chortled to a colleague, "They're framing a guilty man in there." Something similar was probably happening with the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq. They just knew Saddam had WMD, and if the facts didn't quite prove he did, they would underscore and embellish the tidbits that came close. The problem was, their man wasn't guilty, at least on the charges of indictment. (For more on this view of intelligence errors, click here.)

Does this distinction matter? If all you want to know is whether Bush was deceptive, no; he was deceptive. If you want to know how government works, how officials make bad mistakes, yes; it matters a lot.

Reading the seven British memos, you see the Blair government wrestling with serious dilemmas. In a memo to the prime minister on March 14, 2002, David Manning, then Blair's foreign-policy adviser, lists some of the concerns: "how to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified; what value to put on the exiled Iraqi opposition … what happens the morning after?"