What's the Deal With the Downing Street Memo?

Getting a grip on that Bush/Blair war scandal

Today on Capitol Hill, Democratic representatives Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and John Conyers of Michigan will lead a hearing on the so-called Downing Street Memo—minutes from a British leadership meeting that suggest the Bush administration first decided to go to war in Iraq and then built a case for it later.

In a conference call with reporters yesterday, Jackson Lee said the public needs to understand what happened. "This is just the beginning. I look to 2002 and the names many of us were called for opposing the war in Iraq, and then I look at where we are today," she said. "If this is to meet the test of history, we have to have a comprehensive answer to what happened."

The Memo has been big, big news in Britain, but has received little attention in the U.S. What follows is a primer on the Memo and its implications.


On July 23, 2002, British prime minister Tony Blair met with several of his top advisers to discuss plans for the future concerning the United States, Iraq, and the United Nations. The minutes from that meeting were marked "secret and strictly confidential." But on May 1, in the heat of Blair's campaign for re-election, those minutes—which have come to be known as the Downing Street Memo—surfaced in The Times of London.

The Memo confirmed what many progressives had long suspected: that the Bush administration planned to launch a war in Iraq and then rigged a case to justify it. According to the Memo, Britain's intelligence chief reported the following assessment with regard to his then recent trip to Washington: "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 British media, from the Guardian to the BBC News, quickly explored the Memo and its implications and subsequently unearthed more documents that cast further doubt on the official Bush-Blair version of the run-up to the Iraq war (as well as the preparations for its aftermath). In the meantime, however, the titans of the U.S. press largely dodged the Downing Street bullet. As Media Matters for America noted in a study released June 15, the editorial pages of four of the nation's five largest newspapers—USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times—remained "conspicuously silent about the controversy surrounding the document" in the first six weeks after its publication.

Nonetheless, reactions to the Memo have slowly and quietly gathered steam across the United States. Progressive media outlets including The Village Voice (The Bush Beat, Power Plays), TomPaine.com, Democracy Now!, and The Nation have covered the story on a regular basis, and smaller newspapers from Tennessee to Wisconsin have also taken up the issue. Daily Kos began a campaign to "lift the virtual news blackout" on the story.

On the advocacy front, more than 500,000 people signed a letter to President Bush earlier this month demanding an explanation for the latest revelations, and groups of veterans and peace activists have formed a coalition to push for a formal congressional investigation. Moreover, Ralph Nader and Kevin Zeese, among others, have actually raised the prospect of impeachment for President Bush.

With the issue clearly gaining momentum, the key question now is whether the Memo has the muscle to sway not only those who opposed the war in the first place, but also those who at some point supported it.

Neither testimony from Joseph Wilson and Richard Clarke nor the enduring absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has unsettled the American public enough to reopen the debate over the war. Controversy over the Downing Street Memo may also wither away.

But there is a real possibility the issue could gain serious traction in the days and weeks ahead. The Memo is strikingly concrete; beyond the commentary on intelligence-fiddling and fact-tweaking, it notes quite plainly that "the case was thin" for military action in Iraq. And perhaps even more importantly, the people of the United States have become increasingly frustrated with the Iraq war; in fact, a recent Washington Post poll found that for the first time since major combat operations began in March 2003, more than half of all Americans feel the war has not made the nation safer.

 
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