Downing Street War Memo Gains Traction in U.S. Press

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By: Greg Mitchell

For more than 10 days, the U.S. media nearly ignored it, but finally the so-called ?Downing Street Memo? is finally gaining traction in the U.S. press. The Los Angeles Times featured a lengthy report on Thursday, and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post followed on Friday.

The memo, obtained by the The Sunday Times in London and published on May 1, became a major issue in the closing days of the British elections but received little attention in the United States until a Knight Ridder report on May 6, which E&P carried. A Knight Ridder editor later told E&P that it received surprisingly little pickup. The New York Times has given it little notice.

The Washington Post ignored the memo until Pincus?s article, which appeared Friday on page A18. It arrived five days after Post ombudsman Michael Getler revealed that readers had complained about the lack of coverage.

Pincus opened his piece with a helpful summary: ?Seven months before the invasion of Iraq, the head of British foreign intelligence reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that President Bush wanted to topple Saddam Hussein by military action and warned that in Washington intelligence was ?being fixed around the policy,? according to notes of a July 23, 2002, meeting with Blair at No. 10 Downing Street.

?’Military action was now seen as inevitable,’ said the notes, summarizing a report by Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, British intelligence, who had just returned from consultations in Washington along with other senior British officials. Dearlove went on, ?Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.?

“?The case was thin,? summarized the notes taken by a British national security aide at the meeting. ?Saddam was not threatening his neighbours and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.?”

The Blair government has not questioned the authenticity of the document. A former senior U.S. official told Knight Ridder it was “an absolutely accurate description of what transpired” during the senior British intelligence officer’s visit to Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Los Angeles Times story observed that the memo had gained only ?scant? attention until now despite causing ?growing indignation among critics of the Bush White House, who say the documents help prove that the leaders made a secret decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein nearly a year before launching their attack, shaped intelligence to that aim and never seriously intended to avert the war through diplomacy.?

Paul Krugman of The New York Times weighed in with a column partly about the memo on May 16.

In a letter to President Bush on May 6, 89 House Democrats expressed shock over the documents. They asked whether they proved that the White House had agreed to invade Iraq months before seeking Congress’ approval.

Both Bush and Blair have denied that a decision on war was made in 2002, and maintain that they were preparing for military operations only as an option. A Blair spokesman said the report added nothing significant to the record of the run-up to the war.

A recent Gallup Poll showed that 50% of the American public believe that President Bush “deliberately misled” them on Iraq and WMDs.

Pincus noted in his article, ?Although critics of the Iraq war have accused Bush and his top aides of misusing what has since been shown as limited intelligence in the prewar period, Bush’s critics have been unsuccessful in getting an investigation of that matter. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has dropped its previous plan to review how U.S. policymakers used Iraq intelligence, and the president’s commission on intelligence did not look into the subject because it was not authorized to do so by its charter, Laurence H. Silberman, the co-chairman, told reporters last month.?

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