British memo grows in mythology, if not in media

Among antiwar advocates, the Downing Street Memo has caused an uproar. Among the media, it reads like old news.

Published June 26, 2005

It's actually the minutes of a meeting, not a "memo." And among hundreds of words, just 10 jump out.

But apart from the steadily rising body count in Iraq, few things have so galvanized American antiwar sentiment as the so-called Downing Street Memo.

Disclosed May 1 by London's Sunday Times, the memo outlines a meeting July 23, 2002, at the residence of British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The head of British intelligence, fresh from talks in Washington, tells Blair that President Bush is determined to remove Saddam Hussein and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Dated nine months before the invasion, the memo quickly became big news in Britain, where critics said it proved Bush planned to go to war regardless of whether Hussein truly posed a threat. The furor hurt Blair, the president's staunchest ally, and contributed to the poorer-than-expected showing of the Labor Party in the May 5 British elections.

On this side of the Atlantic, though, the Downing Street Memo hit with a poof, not a bang. Most news organizations all but ignored it, to the outrage of readers and bloggers who have swamped the St. Petersburg Times and other media with demands for greater coverage.

The memo "is a smoking gun - this is our Watergate," says Clay Colson, a community activist in Pasco County. "I read it, and when I showed it to a very diverse group of friends, the one thing on everybody's tongue was, "Why wasn't this on the front page of the newspaper?' "

Is the memo really proof that Bush deceived the country into going to war, as Colson and others say? Or has its significance been exaggerated, as many in the media counter?

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and generally a harsh critic of the president. Yet he demurred on the memo, saying the British intelligence chief offered no specifics.

"Nor does the memo assert that actual decisionmakers had told him they were fixing the facts," Kinsley wrote. "Although the prose is not exactly crystalline, it seems to be saying only that "Washington' had reached that conclusion. And of course Washington had done so. You don't need a secret memo to know this."

The Downing Street Memo is certainly one piece of evidence the White House decided on war before verifying Iraq's weapons capabilities or purported ties to al-Qaida. But by the time the memo become public, what it purports to reveal had been revealed elsewhere, again and again and again - bestselling books as well as articles in major U.S. newspapers and magazines showed the administration had been intent on war.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talked about "getting rid of" Hussein, according to the Price of Loyalty by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind.

"Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that's aligned with U.S. interests," Rumsfeld told the National Security Council two weeks after Bush took office in January 2001. "It would demonstrate what U.S. policy is all about."

Just eight days after the Sept. 11 hijackings, a front page story in the New York Times reported that some administration officials were "pressing for the earliest and broadest military campaign" against not only al-Qaida in Afghanistan but "but also against other suspected terrorist bases in Iraq."

In his book Bush at War, Bob Woodward gave more details of the September 2001 war summit at Camp David: Even if Iraq couldn't be linked to Sept. 11, it posed an easier target than mountainous Afghanistan, Rumsfeld and others argued. According to Woodward, the president eventually tired of the debate and chose to focus on Afghanistan for the present.

Over the next several months, however, Bush and top aides made frequent public statements implying Hussein was tied to the September attacks, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups - contrary to intelligence reports.

In February 2002, the New York Times revealed that the CIA "found no evidence Iraq has engaged in terrorist operations against the United States in nearly a decade." The agency was "also convinced Hussein has not provided chemical or biological weapons to al-Qaida or related terrorist groups."

The extent to which the administration veered from facts and intelligence in making the case for war was detailed in the New Republic in June 2003, three months after the invasion.

Based on interviews with intelligence officials and other experts, the magazine found that the Bush administration "culled from U.S. intelligence those assessments that supported its position and omitted those that did not."

Among many examples the magazine cited were efforts to convince Congress and the United Nations that Hussein was trying to reconstitute his nuclear weapons program. In his January 2003 State of the Union speech, Bush said Iraq had tried to buy "significant quantities" of uranium from Niger. The president's claim was based on a document that already had been proven a forgery, the New Republic said.

A week later, Secretary of State Colin Powell told the U.N. Security Council that Iraq also was trying to acquire aluminum tubes for gas centrifuges, used to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. But several experts - including some in Powell's own department - had concluded the tubes were the wrong type for a nuclear program and instead were intended for use in conventional rockets.

"Had the administration accurately depicted the consensus within the intelligence community in 2002 . . . it would have had a very difficult time convincing Congress and the American public to support a war to disarm Saddam," the magazine said.

In July 2003, a political firestorm erupted in the form of a New York Times op-ed piece by Joseph C. Wilson, a former U.S. ambassador in Africa. Wilson disclosed he had gone to Niger at the CIA's request to investigate Hussein's purported uranium purchase.

After meeting with "dozens of people," Wilson told the State Department and the CIA that it would have been "exceedingly difficult" for Niger to transfer uranium to Iraq. Thus he was surprised to hear Bush repeat the claim in his State of the Union speech.

"Based on my experience with the administration in the months leading up to the war," Wilson wrote, "I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq's nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

The piece drew massive attention, particularly after columnist Robert D. Novak revealed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA agent who had recommended her husband for the Niger mission. The disclosure of her identity, which was classified, led to an ongoing investigation into who leaked her name.

Given the publicity over the Wilson bombshell and other examples of the administration's resolve to attack Iraq, the Downing Street Memo didn't stir as much interest in the United States as it did in Britain, where it was leaked in the closing days of a heated election campaign.

It wasn't until after a June 7 press conference, at which Bush and Blair denied intelligence had been "fixed," that the issue got substantial play from major U.S. news organizations.

The St. Petersburg Times first mentioned the memo in a June 3 story about protesters who gathered outside a Tampa TV station to draw attention to it. The paper also ran a story last week about an unofficial hearing on the memo organized by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

The hearing, held in a basement room and boycotted by Republicans, ended with calls for a congressional inquiry into whether Bush should be impeached for misleading the nation.

"We didn't do much with the memo because a lot of what was in the memo was material we had already reported on, either using wire stories out of Washington or with our own staff," says Stephen Buckley, the Times' managing editor.

"It just didn't strike us as offering a lot of dramatically new information - it seemed to confirm things that we had already put in the newspaper."

Lakshmi Chaudhry, co-author of the 2003 book The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq, acknowledges there was "a lot of good reporting" in U.S. papers leading up to the war. The problem, she says, is that stories questioning the evidence often ran inside, while stories in which the White House pushed its case with little Democratic opposition got front-page play.

News organizations are starting to cover the Downing Street Memo now because Conyers and other Democrats have made an issue of it, Chaudhry says.

"I think it re-emphasizes the point about how the media responds to what the political establishment is doing. Since the Democratic Party leadership has decided to take a much stronger stance on Downing Street, Guantanamo and other issues . . . within the Bush White House, that precisely is why there is more coverage."

It could also be that editors are reacting to the torrent of e-mails, letters and phone calls from readers convinced the media aren't doing enough on the memo and a related document. That one, a British briefing paper leaked this month, says that Blair and Bush had decided to go to war by early 2002 but that "it was necessary to create the conditions" that would make it legal.

Activists seeking greater coverage of the leaked documents are extremely well-organized. They have a Web site - www.downingstreetmemo.com - that includes a daily "target" list of editors to call this month. Friday's targets: the Detroit News, San Antonio Express News and Reno Gazette-Journal.

"We were just incredulous that nobody in the U.S. was picking up on this," says Gina Fesmire, a Sunnyvale, Calif., Web designer who started the site with a Chicago area law student and a Canadian government employee. "The documents speak for themselves - the public needs to know about them."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com