When Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser dined with Condoleezza Rice six months after Sept. 11, the then-U.S. national security adviser didn’t want to discuss Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida. She wanted to talk about “regime change” in Iraq, setting the stage for the U.S.-led invasion more than a year later.
President Bush wanted Blair’s support, but British officials worried the White House was rushing to war, according to a series of leaked secret Downing Street memos that have renewed questions and debate about Washington’s motives for ousting Saddam Hussein.
In one of the memos, British Foreign Office political director Peter Ricketts openly asks whether the Bush administration had a clear and compelling military reason for war.
“U.S. scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing,” Ricketts says in the memo. “For Iraq, `regime change’ does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.”
The documents confirm Blair was genuinely concerned about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, but also indicate he was determined to go to war as America’s top ally, even though his government thought a pre-emptive attack may be illegal under international law.
“The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programs, but our tolerance of them post-11 September,” said a typed copy of a March 22, 2002 memo obtained Thursday by The Associated Press and written to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
“But even the best survey of Iraq’s WMD programs will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or CW/BW (chemical or biological weapons) fronts: the programs are extremely worrying but have not, as far as we know, been stepped up.”
Details from Rice’s dinner conversation also are included in one of the secret memos from 2002, which reveal British concerns about both the invasion and poor postwar planning by the Bush administration, which critics say has allowed the Iraqi insurgency to rage.
The eight memos — all labeled “secret” or “confidential” — were first obtained by British reporter Michael Smith, who has written about them in The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times.
Smith told AP he protected the identity of the source he had obtained the documents from by typing copies of them on plain paper and destroying the originals.
The AP obtained copies of six of the memos (the other two have circulated widely). A senior British official who reviewed the copies said their content appeared authentic. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secret nature of the material.
The eight documents total 36 pages and range from 10-page and eight-page studies on military and legal options in Iraq, to brief memorandums from British officials and the minutes of a private meeting held by Blair and his top advisers.
Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert who teaches at Queen Mary College, University of London, said the documents confirmed what post-invasion investigations have found.
“The documents show what official inquiries in Britain already have, that the case of weapons of mass destruction was based on thin intelligence and was used to inflate the evidence to the level of mendacity,” Dodge said. “In going to war with Bush, Blair defended the special relationship between the two countries, like other British leaders have. But he knew he was taking a huge political risk at home. He knew the war’s legality was questionable and its unpopularity was never in doubt.”
Dodge said the memos also show Blair was aware of the postwar instability that was likely among Iraq’s complex mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds once Saddam was defeated.
The British documents confirm, as well, that “soon after 9/11 happened, the starting gun was fired for the invasion of Iraq,” Dodge said.
Speculation about if and when that would happen ran throughout 2002.
On Jan. 29, Bush called Iraq, Iran and North Korea “an axis of evil.” U.S. newspapers began reporting soon afterward that a U.S.-led war with Iraq was possible.
On Oct. 16, the U.S. Congress voted to authorize Bush to go to war against Iraq. On Feb. 5, 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented the Bush administration’s case about Iraq’s weapons to the U.N. Security Council. On March 19-20, the U.S.-led invasion began.
Bush and Blair both have been criticized at home since their WMD claims about Iraq proved false. But both have been re-elected, defending the conflict for removing a brutal dictator and promoting democracy in Iraq. Both administrations have dismissed the memos as old news.
Details of the memos appeared in papers early last month but the news in Britain quickly turned to the election that returned Blair to power. In the United States, however, details of the memos’ contents reignited a firestorm, especially among Democratic critics of Bush.
It was in a March 14, 2002, memo that Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, David Manning, told the prime minister about the dinner he had just had with Rice in Washington.
“We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq,” wrote Manning, who’s now British ambassador to the United States. Rice is now Bush’s secretary of state.
“It is clear that Bush is grateful for your (Blair’s) support and has registered that you are getting flak. I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States. And you would not budge either in your insistence that, if we pursued regime change, it must be very carefully done and produce the right result. Failure was not an option.”
Manning said, “Condi’s enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed.” But he also said there were signs of greater awareness of the practical difficulties and political risks.
Blair was to meet with Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on April 8, and Manning told his boss: “No doubt we need to keep a sense of perspective. But my talks with Condi convinced me that Bush wants to hear your views on Iraq before taking decisions. He also wants your support. He is still smarting from the comments by other European leaders on his Iraq policy.”
A July 21 briefing paper given to officials preparing for a July 23 meeting with Blair says officials must “ensure that the benefits of action outweigh the risks.”
“In particular we need to be sure that the outcome of the military action would match our objective… A postwar occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. As already made clear, the U.S. military plans are virtually silent on this point.”
The British worried that, “Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden. Further work is required to define more precisely the means by which the desired end state would be created, in particular what form of government might replace Saddam Hussein’s regime and the time scale within which it would be possible to identify a successor.”
In the March 22 memo from Foreign Office political director Ricketts to Foreign Secretary Straw, Ricketts outlined how to win public and parliamentary support for a war in Britain: “We have to be convincing that: the threat is so serious/imminent that it is worth sending our troops to die for; it is qualitatively different from the threat posed by other proliferators who are closer to achieving nuclear capability (including Iran).”
Blair’s government has been criticized for releasing an intelligence dossier on Iraq before the war that warned Saddam could launch chemical or biological weapons on 45 minutes’ notice.
On March 25 Straw wrote a memo to Blair, saying he would have a tough time convincing the governing Labour Party that a pre-emptive strike against Iraq was legal under international law.
“If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the U.S. would now be considering military action against Iraq,” Straw wrote. “In addition, there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with OBL (Osama bin Laden) and al-Qaida.”
He also questioned stability in a post-Saddam Iraq: “We have also to answer the big question ? what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything.”
Excerpts from material in secret Downing Street memos written in 2002. The information, authenticated by a senior British government official, was transcribed from the original documents.
In a memo dated March 14, 2002, Tony Blair’s chief foreign policy adviser, David Manning, tells the prime minister about a dinner he had with then-U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who’s now secretary of state. Manning is now the British ambassador to the United States.
“We spent a long time at dinner on Iraq. It is clear that Bush is grateful for your (Blair) support and has registered that you are getting flak. I said that you would not budge in your support for regime change but you had to manage a press, a Parliament and a public opinion that was very different than anything in the States. And you would not budge either in your insistence that, if we pursued regime change, it must be very carefully done and produce the right result. Failure was not an option.”
“Condi’s enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed. But there were some signs, since we last spoke, of greater awareness of the practical difficulties and political risks. … From what she said, Bush has yet to find the answers to the big questions: How to persuade international opinion that military action against Iraq is necessary and justified; What value to put on the exiled Iraqi opposition; How to coordinate a U.S./allied military campaign with internal opposition; (assuming there is any); What happens on the morning after?”
From a memo dated March 22, 2002 from Peter Ricketts, British foreign office political director, to Jack Straw, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, on advice given on Iraq to Blair.
“The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein’s WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post-11 September. This is not something we need to be defensive about, but attempts to claim otherwise publicly will increase scepticism about our case. I am relieved that you decided to postpone publication of the unclassified document. My meeting yesterday showed that there is more work to do to ensure that the figures are accurate and consistent with those of the US. But even the best survey of Iraq’s WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or CW/BW (chemical or biological weapon) fronts: the programmes are extremely worrying but have not, as far as we know, been stepped up.”
“US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing. To get public and Parliamentary support for military operations, we have to be convincing that the threat is so serious/imminent that it is worth sending out troops to die for; it is qualitatively different from the threat posed by other proliferators who are closer to achieving nuclear capability (including Iran).”
“We can make the case on qualitative difference (only Iraq has attacked a neighbour, used CW and fired missiles against Israel). The overall strategy needs to include re-doubled effort to tackle other proliferators, including Iran, in other ways (the UK/French ideas on greater IAEA activity are helpful here). But we are still left with a problem of bringing public opinion to accept the imminence of a threat from Iraq. This is something the Prime Minister and President need to have a frank discussion about.”
“The second problem is the END STATE. Military operations need clear and compelling military objectives. For Kosovo, it was: Serbs out, Kosovars back, peace-keepers in. For Afghanistan, destroying the Taleban and Al Qaida military capability. For Iraq, “regime change” does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.”
From a document dated March 8, 2002, on Iraq from the Overseas and Defense Secretariat to Cabinet Office:
“Since 1991, our objective has been to re-integrate a law-abiding Iraq which does not possess WMD or threaten its neighbours, into the international community. Implicitly, this cannot occur with Saddam Hussein in power.”
“Despite sanctions, Iraq continues to develop WMD, although our intelligence is poor. Saddam has used WMD in the past and could do so again if his regime were threatened, though there is no greater threat now than in recent years that Saddam will use WMD.”
“The US administration has lost faith in containment and is now considering regime change.”
“A legal justification for invasion would be needed. Subject to Law Officers advice, none currently exists. This makes moving quickly to invade legally very difficult.”
“Saddam is only likely to permit the return of inspectors if he believes the threat of large scale US military action is imminent and that such concessions would prevent the US from acting decisively. Playing for time, he would then embark on a renewed policy of noncooperation.”
“The US has lost confidence in containment. Some in government want Saddam removed. … The US may be willing to work with a much smaller coalition than we think desirable.”
“We have looked at three options for achieving regime change (we dismissed assassination of Saddam Hussein as an option because it would be illegal).”
“Of course, REGIME CHANGE has no basis in international law.”
From a memo dated March 25, 2002, from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Blair:
“If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the US would now be considering military action against Iraq. In addition, there has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with UBL (Osama bin Laden) and Al Qaida. Objectively, the threat from Iraq has not worsened as a result of 11 September. What has however changed is the tolerance of the international community (especially that of the US), the world having witnesses sic on September 11 just what determined evil people can these days perpetuate.”
Speaking about the difference between Iraq, Iran and North Korea, he said: “By linking these countries together in the “axis of evil” speech, President Bush implied an identity betwen sic them not only in terms of their threat, but also in terms of the action necessary to be done to delink the three, and to show why military action against Iraq is so much more justified than against Iran and North Korea. The heart of this case ? that Iraq poses a unique and present danger ? rests on the facts.”
“A legal justification is a necessary but far from sufficient precondition for military action. We also have to answer the big question ? what will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything. Most of the assessments from the US have assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq’s WMD threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be better.”
“Iraq has had NO history of democracy, so no one has this habit or experience.”
From a briefing paper dated July 21, 2002, given to Blair and government officials before meeting on July 23, 2002, about Iraq:
“Even with a legal base and viable military plan, we would still need to ensure that the benefits of action outweigh the risks. In particular we need to be sure that the outcome of the military action would match our objective. … A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. As already made clear, the US military plans are virtually silent on this point. Washington could look to us to share a disproportionate share of the burden. Futher work is required to define more precisely the means by which the desired end state would be created, in particular what form of government might replace Saddam Hussein’s regime’s and the timescale within which it would be possible to identify a successor.”
From minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting between Blair and top government officials. “C” refers to Sir Richard Dearlove, then chief of Britain’s intelligence service.
“C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude (about Iraq). 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. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.”
“The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun `spikes of activity’ to put pressure on the regime.”
“It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”