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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Is there anything important in the Downing Street memo? This is the now-notorious secret transcript of a British ministerial meeting on July 23, 2002—obtained and published by the Sunday Times of London just this past May Day—which seems to suggest that, nine months before the war in Iraq got started, the Bush administration a) knew Saddam Hussein didn't pose a threat; b) decided to overthrow him by force anyway; and c) was "fixing" intelligence to sell the impending invasion to a duped American public.

Many critics see the memo as the ultimate proof of Bush's duplicity—and, given that no U.S. newspaper picked up the story for two weeks (and then buried it deep inside), as further evidence of the mainstream media's cravenness. Others, and not just Bush apologists, see the affair as overblown and the document's contents as no big deal.

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So, let's go to the memo. Actually, let's go to seven memos: the famous minutes; a secret Cabinet Office report written two days before the ministers' meeting (published last weekend by the Sunday Times and the Washington Post); and five eyes-only memos, written around the same time, about various official British meetings with President Bush, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. (These memos, described in today's Los Angeles Times, have been available in full for some time now on the Think Progress Web site.)

What in these documents is new and significant? What's old hat or trivial? What do they say—and not say—about the Bush administration's prevarications? And should the mainstream media be pardoned or lashed for selling the story so short?

The "killer quote" in the original SundayTimes story is this passage from the July 23 ministers' meeting:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.

"C" is the code name for Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. His "recent talks in Washington" would almost certainly have been with his counterpart, George Tenet, then-director of the CIA. Tenet would have told him about the "perceptible shift in attitude." What accounts for it? "Bush wants to remove Saddam through military action."

This is about as solid as the evidence gets on these matters: By mid-summer 2002—at a time when Bush was still assuring the American public that he regarded war as a "last resort"—the president had in fact put it on his front burners.

Some who have read the memo shrug. Even former Slate Editor Michael Kinsley wonders what's new here. After all, we've read over and over that Bush was hellbent on war even earlier than this. The point has been made in Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack, Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies, and Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, as well as in articles by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker and Walter Pincus in the Washington Post.

True, but let's get serious. When the scholars write the big tomes on this sordid saga, they'll want to base their findings on primary-source documents—and here is one, flashing right before us. The Downing Street Memo will be a key footnote in the history books; it should have made front-page headlines in the daily broadsheets of history's first draft.