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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Blair, Bush: Should we be shocked?

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.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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.

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.

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.

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?"

The tragedy embedded in these memos is that the Brits were mistaken in their two most basic premises: first, that Saddam Hussein really had WMD and really posed a threat; second, that just because Bush needed Blair's support, Blair could somehow influence him.

Their first mistake would be revealed after the war was over. The second should have been clear before it began. Manning's memo recounts raising some issues about political support, international law, postwar stability, and so forth at a recent dinner with Rice. "Condi's enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed," he reports, adding, "From what she said, Bush has yet to find the answers to the big questions." Two months later, the July 21 Cabinet Office report cited the same worry: "A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. … U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point."

At least the Brits clearly saw the difficulties ahead and tried to engage Bush on their implications. Had he listened, our biggest problems in Iraq today might be a great deal smaller. This is another lesson to be gleaned from the Downing Street memos.