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Wednesday, May 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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"Downing St. Memo" fizzling in U.S.

Chicago Tribune

The meeting


What Michael Smith, a defense specialist writing for the Sunday Times of London, wrote a report in May 1 editions based on documents he obtained, including minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his intelligence and military chiefs, a briefing paper for that meeting and a Foreign Office legal opinion prepared before a Blair-Bush summit in Crawford, Texas, on April 6-7, 2002.

Who In the room were Blair; Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon, Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of Britain's MI-6 intelligence service, and other military and intelligence chiefs.

The memo can be read at: www.timesonline.co.uk/
article/0,,2087-1593607,00.html

Source: Sunday Times of London

WASHINGTON — A British official's report that the Bush administration appeared intent on invading Iraq long before it acknowledged as much or sought Congress' approval — and that it "fixed" intelligence to fit its intention — has caused a stir in Britain.

But the potentially explosive revelation has proved something of a dud in the United States. The White House has denied the premise of the memo, the U.S. media have reacted slowly to it and the public generally seems indifferent to the issue or unwilling to rehash the bitter prewar debate over the reasons for the war.

All of which have contributed to something less than a robust discussion of a memo that would seem to bolster the strongest assertions of the war's critics.

Frustrated at the lack of attention to the memo, Democrats and other war critics are doing their best to make sure it receives a wider hearing, doing everything from writing letters to the White House to launching online petitions.

The memo was written by British national-security aide Matthew Rycroft, based on notes he took during a July 23, 2002, meeting at Downing Street of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisers, including Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of Britain's MI-6 intelligence service who had met recently with unnamed Bush administration officials.

Since being leaked along with other documents to a British newspaper in the days before the May 5 British parliamentary elections, the memo has raised new questions about whether the Bush administration misrepresented prewar intelligence about suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify military action against Saddam Hussein's government.

Rycroft's minutes indicate general thoughts among participants about how to create a political and a legal basis for a war. The case for military action was "thin," Foreign Minister Jack Straw was characterized as saying, and Saddam's government was posing little threat.

A "thin case"

Labeled "secret and strictly personal — UK eyes only," the minutes begin with Dearlove, identified as "C" in the memo, telling meeting participants that he had recently returned from Washington, where there was a "perceptible shift in attitude. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy." The memo doesn't specify which Bush administration officials met with Dearlove.

Straw agreed that Bush seemed determined on military action, though the timing was not certain, according to the memo. "But the case was thin," the minutes read. "Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capacity was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

Straw then proposed to "work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam" to permit weapons inspectors back into the country. "This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force," he said, according to the minutes.

Blair weighed in, saying, according to the document, "that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the U.N. inspectors."

Blair's office has not disputed the authenticity of the memo, but the White House denies the assertions in it.

On Capitol Hill, where investigations have denounced prewar intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as "deeply flawed," there appears to be little appetite for reopening the question of why the United States went to war.

"I suppose it hasn't played there because, basically, didn't everyone know that Bush decided early on to get rid of Saddam?" asked Philip Stephens, a Blair biographer and associate editor of the Financial Times of London.

Stephens said there was a basic difference in the argument over the invasion of Iraq in Britain and the United States.

"The contexts of the debates have always been different," Stephens said. "There was never really a question [in the United States] about whether it was justified or not to go for regime change. This was the administration's objective. People either agreed with it or disagreed with it. There really wasn't a disagreement about the legal basis for it."

E-mail campaign, letter

Dubbed "the Downing Street Memo," the report of the meeting of Blair and his aides purported to recount the Bush administration's approach to Iraq at that point. The memo asserted that Bush had decided to remove Saddam nearly eight months before U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq.

Summarizing the view of intelligence-chief Dearlove after consulting with U.S. officials, the memo said: "Military action was now seen as inevitable."

The Bush administration at the time was assuring the public that a decision to go to war had not been made and that Iraq could prevent military action by complying with existing U.N. resolutions that were intended to curtail its chemical-, nuclear-, biological- and missile-weapons programs.

The memo was divulged this month by the Sunday Times of London, on May 1, four days before Blair's re-election. Knight Ridder Newspapers, in an article that appeared in The Seattle Times on May 6, quoted an unnamed former senior U.S. official as saying Dearlove's account was "an absolutely accurate description of what transpired" during the visit.

The "U.S. has already begun 'spikes of activity' to put pressure on the regime," Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon reported, according to the memo. Although no decision had been made, "he thought the most likely timing in U.S. minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the U.S. congressional elections."

As it worked out, the Bush administration's public campaign for supporting a possible invasion of Iraq began in late August, with speeches by Vice President Dick Cheney, followed by a late-October vote in Congress to grant the president authority to use force if necessary. Later in October, the British and the Americans introduced their resolution on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council and it passed in early November, shortly after the Nov. 2 elections.

In addition to the memo, the Sunday Times account referred to a Cabinet briefing paper that was given to participants before the July 23 meeting that stated that Blair already had promised Bush cooperation earlier, at an April summit in Crawford, Texas. "The UK would support military action to bring about regime change," the Sunday Times quoted the briefing paper as saying.

In the United States, the account has drawn only passing attention, even in the nation's capital, where the debate over prewar intelligence on Iraq once dogged the White House. No weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, and Iraqi scientists have told U.S. inspectors that any weapons Iraq did possess were destroyed years ago.

White House response

Opponents of the war and administration have launched e-mail campaigns to elevate the issue. One Web site, DowningStreetMemo.com, encourages visitors to sign a petition and "take action." Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., wrote a letter to the White House, signed by 89 House Democrats, that expressed concern about the memo's revelations.

If the memo is true, he said last week, it is "a huge problem" in terms of an abuse of power. He said there had been no response from the White House.

Blair and Bush have denied a war decision was made in early 2002. The White House and Downing Street maintain that they were preparing for military operations as one option, but the option to not attack also remained open until the start of the war on March 20, 2003.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, asked Monday about the memo's implication that intelligence was being "fixed" on Iraq, said, "The suggestion is just flat-out wrong. Anyone who wants to know how the intelligence was used only has to go back and read everything that was said in public about the lead-up to the war."

However, a commission that the president appointed to investigate intelligence gathering that led to the invasion concluded that all of the intelligence community's information about the existence of biological or any other weapons of mass destruction was "deeply flawed."

"The intelligence community was absolutely uniform, and uniformly wrong, about the existence of weapons of mass destruction. And they pushed that position," said Judge Laurence Silberman, co-chairman of the commission.

Critics of the Bush administration long have argued that Bush appeared intent on invading Iraq long before Congress voted to authorize military action in October 2002.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., former chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, has written in his book "Intelligence Matters" about a visit he made to MacDill Air Force Base, home of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), on Feb. 19, 2002.

Graham wrote that he was going for a status report on the mission in Afghanistan, but that Centcom's Gen. Tommy Franks called him aside to tell him, "Senator, we are not engaged in a war in Afghanistan."

"Excuse me?" Graham replied.

"Military and intelligence personnel are being re-deployed to prepare for an action in Iraq," Graham quoted Franks as saying. "I was stunned," Graham wrote. "This was the first time I had been informed that the decision to go to war with Iraq had not only been made but was being implemented ... ."

Another piece of the British memo has relevance now, as the United States battles an insurgency that some say was exacerbated by faulty post-invasion planning. "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action," the notes say, without attributing that directly to Dearlove.

Material from The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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