The Downing Street Memo title


What?But we went to the UN

President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and their supporters frequently point to the timing of the DSM and other leaked documents and say, "but we went to the UN after that, which proves we wanted a peaceful solution."

First, we should note that for Blair, going to the UN was an imperative. As a party to the International Criminal Court, the UK needed a legal justification for invasion, and regime change was not adequate, as is indicated by several of the leaked UK documents. However, both Blair and Bush needed the imprimatur of a UN resolution to build public support.

As Peter Ricketts' memo to Jack Straw on March 22, 2002 states, the UN strategy was twofold: "either Saddam against all the odds allows Inspectors to operate freely, in which case we can further hobble his WMD programmes, or he blocks/hinders, and we are on stronger ground for switching to other methods." But the plan backfired--Saddam did let the inspectors back in, but after visiting over 100 sites multiple times they found no WMD. They did find some conventional missiles that exceeded set restrictions on range--still no threat to the US or UK--and they were promptly destroyed.

With the basis for war evaporating with each passing day, Bush went back to the UN to try for a second resolution that would have declared Iraq in "material breach" of resolution 1441, thus rubber stamping his invasion plan. When it became clear he didn't have the votes, Bush ordered inspectors and other foreigners out of the country and invaded anyway.\

The exercise at the UN was a sham. From the beginning, it was seen by the US and UK as a means to justfiy war, not prevent it. The DSM clearly indicates the policy of invasion was set long before the US went to the UN (and before Bush sought approval from Congress for the use of force against Iraq). The other leaked UK memos show a British Cabinet scrambling to find a legal basis for a war their Prime Minister had already committed them to. When the UN ceased to offer any further benefit to the war agenda, the US and UK moved on--to Baghdad.

What?Congress had access to the same intel as Bush and they approved the invasion

On October 10, 2002, Congress voted to approve the use of force against Iraq. The President has indicated on several occasions that members of Congress had access to the same intelligence his administration had, and made their choice on the basis of this information. What is less known is the fact that what Congress was given bore little resemblance to the detailed reports the Bush administration was reading.

Senator Bob Graham, in his book, recounts a Sept 5, 2002 meeting he and Senators Durbin and Levin had with then CIA director George Tenet and his staff. Though the administration had long before decided on invasion, to the senators' amazement no National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq had yet been produced. Graham, Durbin and Levin demanded to see one, and three weeks later Tenet produced a 90-page document rife with caveats and qualifications (though these were buried in footnotes) about what we knew--or didn't know--about WMD in Iraq.

That report was classified, and as such was available only to those on the House and Senate intelligence committees. Graham pressed for it to be declassified, and got what he asked for on Oct 4--less than a week before Congress was to vote on the use of force. However, this declassified version was more like a marketing brochure: 20 pages in length, slickly produced with splashy grahics and maps, and with none of the caveats contained in the original. Graham described it later as "a vivid and terrifying case for war."

This 20-page, unqualified summary was presented to our senators and representatives as the best information on Iraq's WMDs, and it was provided to them one week before the vote on the use of force. The intelligence material Congress had was what the administration was willing to give them, namely a promotional piece whose lies of omission outweighed what was included.

What?The issue of why we went to war is moot

We can all agree that a stable Iraq is the most desirable outcome, but this is a separate issue from the question of why we went to war and how the case for war was made.

There is ample evidence—in the DSM and elsewhere—that the administration misrepresented the nature and extent of the threat posed by Saddam’s Iraq, that the case for war was built on this misrepresentation, and as a consequence many tens of thousands of people (Americans, Iraqis and others) have lost their lives.  Every time someone is killed or injured as a result of the ongoing violence in Iraq, it becomes more—not less—important that we understand why and how we went to war.  We were misled, and the people who misled us must be held accountable for their deception.

Information that is now publicly available, such as the DSM, makes it at least possible that a crime may have been committed by the Bush administration.  To say that the issue of why we invaded Iraq is irrelevant because it’s in the past is akin to saying that the specifics of Watergate became irrelevant when Richard Nixon resigned.

What?The information in the DSM is not “news”

Much of the information contained in the DSM has been reported elsewhere, so in that sense it is perhaps not a “smoking gun” in itself.  This, however, does not diminish the importance of what the memo reveals.  When viewed in context—as we have attempted to do with—the DSM and other leaked documents paint a damning portrait of an administration artificially pumping up its case for war while at the same time disingenuously asserting its desire to avoid it. The DSM is also highly credible, as it is the official record of the Prime Minister's meeting and not the more easily dismissed recollection of a former White House official.

What makes the DSM so vital from a news perspective is:
• The source – short of a similar document on the US side, there isn’t a much
    more credible source than the British Prime Minister and his senior staff.
•The timing – the fact that the meeting in question took place in July 2002
    illustrates just how early on Bush had made up his mind to “remove Saddam,
    through military action, justified by the conjunction of WMD and terrorism.”
•The “nutshell” – in a few sentences, the memo summarizes all of the key
    components of Bush’s deception: that Iraq posed an imminent threat to
    the United States, that the US was willing to work with the UN on a diplomatic
    solution, that war was a last resort, but if undertaken that the legal basis for it
    was sound, and that the aftermath of an invasion, if necessary, would
    be managed responsibly.

In the wake of belated media coverage of the DSM, mainstream media outlets balked at the suggestion that they missed the story. Editorial pages were filled with claims that "everyone knew" the administration had made up its mind to go to war, even in the summer of 2002. If that was the case, one has to ask why no reporter ever challenged the President on the many occasions between July 2002 and the start of the invasion when he claimed not to have come to a decision on war.

The US media was at least uncritical and at worst overtly supportive of the invasion; to claim differently now is disingenuous.

What?Americans knew the case for war was thin from the outset, but supported the invasion anyway, and confirmed this by reelecting Bush in 2004.

Let us assume for the moment that Americans had the benefit of a truly fair and balanced news media from which to gather information and form an opinion on the necessity of war.  The DSM makes it clear that there were some things that the public did not know and could not have known (e.g., the National Security Council’s unwillingness to work with the UN).  There were other things too that were presented by the administration in such a distorted way as to render them useless to even the most engaged American citizen in forming an opinion on the necessity of war.

The non-existent connection between Saddam and al Qaida, for example, was cited so many times by the administration that at the height of prewar hysteria, well over half of Americans polled believed Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks when in fact Iraq had nothing to do with them.  Similarly, claims about Iraq’s WMD capability featured regular invocations of “mushroom clouds” when there was in fact no evidence on which to base such claims--particularly in the area of nuclear weapons.

What we now know is that the conflation of Saddam, WMD and terrorism was in essence a marketing strategy, a preconceived justification for a preconceived war.  As early as July of 2002, the President and his administration had not only decided to invade Iraq in order to depose Saddam, they had also determined how to enlist the support of the American people by playing on their worst fears.

Bush’s reelection came well before the release of the DSM, so it is impossible to know what impact it might have had on what was a very close election.

What?The DSM doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.

For those of us who saw through the Bush administration’s house of cards before the invasion, the DSM doesn’t really offer anything we “didn’t already know.”  However, its provenance and its comprehensive yet straightforward representation of the administration’s Iraq policy present the facts in a much more compelling light.  It also represents hard evidence of the administration’s willful misrepresentation of its own policies.

The DSM’s importance lies not so much in what it says but who said it.  This is not “sour grapes” coming from ousted White House officials with a bone to pick—it is the official record of a meeting held by America's staunchest ally.  The DSM may not tell us anything really new, but it does offer hard evidence that the Bush administration misled the country into war.

An excellent piece on this very subject can be found here: "Some questions for media dismissing Downing Street Memo as old news."

What?The DSM is just one aide’s impressions of what was said in a meeting, so we don’t know what the players actually said or thought.

This argument seeks to discredit the document’s accuracy by suggesting that it represents one person’s—presumably erroneous—impression of the meeting. This is simple wrong. The DSM is the minutes of a meeting, and they were circulated after the meeting to all who took part. If one of the participants was misquoted, he would have had ample opportunity to correct the error.

However, given numerous opportunities to refute or clarify any of the memo’s contents, none of the players has done so. Not the British government, the Prime Minister, or any members of his cabinet. In fact, no one from President Bush to Tony Blair and all the members of their respective senior staffs has ever denied the authenticity of the memo, and the only critiques offered of its accuracy have been vague denials about the President's and PM's intentions. Those denials were offered up only after the DSM became the subject of media attention. No one has ever offered any reasonable explanation as to why the document would be so far off from what Blair and Bush claim was their position at the time.

What?The issue of manipulation of intelligence has already been settled.

This is, quite simply, false.  The President’s commission on intelligence did not address the issue because it was not authorized to do so under its charter.  The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was originally going to investigate how intelligence was used but, under White House pressure, scaled back its inquiry to deal only with “intelligence failures” in terms of how the information was collected, not how it was used as a basis for war.

What the DSM clearly states is that the head of British Intelligence believed that the Bush Administration was using certain pieces of intelligence to support a course of action rather than determining a course of action based on the totality of intelligence. So far, no investigation into how intelligence was used has been undertaken.

What?Many other nations, France included, believed Saddam had WMD, so this was not a justification cooked up by the US/UK. 

While it’s true that many governments suspected Saddam had WMD, there was no agreement as to what his actual capabilities were, or on what to do about it.  Further, simply believing something to be true does not make it so, and certainly does not form a basis for war.

The administration never had a “smoking gun” to prove Saddam had WMD, and in fact the intelligence supporting the administration’s view was alarmingly thin.  As we now know from various reports, US intelligence affirming WMD frequently came from paid informants who, in some cases, were later proven to be fabricators.  There was virtually no intelligence coming out of Iraq itself—the country was impenetrable, leaving the US and others with little in the way of credible sources.

It is also worth noting that while there was a range of opinion (and widespread error) as to Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons capability, there certainly was not a consensus. The issue of nuclear weapons is a different story. Here, the US and UK stood nearly alone in their dire assessment.  It was also on this issue that the administration demonstrated its willingness to use highly dubious intelligence reports by claiming that Iraq had sought nuclear material from Niger. This claim, of course, was based on crudely forged documents and should never have been made. The fact that the President did made this claim, and did so in a State of the Union address, is all the more troubling, especially given that the same statement was pulled from a speech he gave just a few months earlier. 

What?Regime change was already US policy before we invaded Iraq--President Clinton did that when he signed HR 4655, the Iraq Liberation Act, in 1998. 

The Iraq Liberation Act expressed the Clinton administration’s support for democratic opposition groups inside Iraq and authorized a variety of mechanisms by which to provide that support.  These included military assistance in the form of supplies and training.  However, the final section of the act expressly limits the administration to just these forms of military support.  From this we can safely assert that the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 provided no policy precedent for invasion, air strikes or any use of American military force.
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