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17/6/05 British Documents: The Pentagon Papers of Our Time? William E. Jackson, Jr.
 

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The so-called Downing Street memos, now seven in number, have been dismissed by some in the press as “old news,” but the same could be said of the Pentagon Papers when they were published. As in the previous case, the shock value comes from their official nature, and they bring key questions about deceit and poor judgment in the run-up to the Iraq war back to the forefront for public debate.

(June 17, 2005) — On public radio this week, Walter Pincus, the senior national security reporter for The Washington Post, posed the question: if the statements in the various Downing Street memos are to be dismissed as “old” news—since preparing to go to war in Iraq and questions about intelligence were already “conventional wisdom” and published as such in 2002—then why was so much made of the Pentagon Papers back in the 1970s when reporters knew early on, and were writing, that the Vietnam war was a disaster in which the U.S. had made a string of mistakes?

Ironically, it is the same New York Times which bravely published the Pentagon Papers that, as recently as today, is still treating the Downing Street Papers as merely fodder for “antiwar” types.

Even though their importance has been dismissed, or played down, by both the Bush Administration and several leaders of the mainstream news media in the United States, the British government memos leaked to Michael Smith of the Sunday Times of London do constitute “primary” sources from near the heart of government when composing the first draft of an authoritative history of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Moreover, all the key questions about the deceit and lack of judgment by the Administration when making the case for war are back on the table for public debate.

Comparable American official documents, at the National Security Council level, have yet to be leaked. The introduction of a Congressional resolution this week calling for military withdrawal from Iraq, and plummeting public support for Bush and U.S. Iraq policies, are bound to encourage leaks from dissident voices within the White House and the bureaucracies.

---The Seven Inconvenient Memos

How to distinguish between the latest grand total of seven official documents that made their way from London to American shores? And what is important about them?

Following the revelation of the minutes of the British ministerial meeting held at 10 Downing on July 23, 2002—which strongly suggested that the Bush Administration was “fixing” intelligence to sell a policy of war—this last weekend saw the surfacing of the transcript of a July 2002 Cabinet office briefing paper entitled “Iraq: Conditions for Military Action.” The latter warned: “A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation- building exercise.”

Pincus wrote on the front page of the June 12 Washington Post: “The eight-page memo, written in advance of a July 23 Downing Street meeting on Iraq, provides new insights into how senior British officials saw a Bush administration decision to go to war as inevitable, and realized more clearly than their American counterparts the potential for the post-invasion instability that continues to plague Iraq.”

Defense correspondent Smith described it in the Sunday Times of London:”Ministers were warned in July 2002 that Britain was committed to taking part in an American-led invasion of Iraq and they had no choice but to find a way of making it legal. The warning said Tony Blair had already agreed to back military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein at a summit at the Texas ranch of President George W. Bush three months earlier. The briefing paper said that since regime change was illegal it was ‘necessary to create the conditions’ which would make it legal.”

Then the Los Angeles Times weighed in on June 15 with five more previously classified memos—texts provided by Michael Smith—that helped to flesh out the background to the original DSM: “British Officials Believed the U.S. Favored Military Force a Year Before the War, Documents Show.” These convincingly establish that the Brits more clearly saw the problems ahead and tried to engage the Bush Administration in considering their implications.

For example, in a memo to the Prime Minister on March 14, 2002, Blair’s foreign policy adviser listed some 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 [read Chalabi]; what happens the morning after” invasion and the toppling of the Baghdad government. Foreshadowing developments a year before the war started, British officials in these memos emphasized the importance of UN diplomacy—which they said might force Saddam into a misstep—and suggested that confronting the Iraqi leader be cast as an effort to prevent him from using weapons of mass destruction or giving them to terrorists.

Another memo, to Foreign Secretary Straw, frankly stated that the case against Saddam was weak because the Iraqi leader was not accelerating his weapons programs, and there was scant proof of links to Al Qaeda. Other countries such as Iran appeared closer to getting nuclear weapons; and arguing for regime change in Iraq alone “does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.”

The documents contained little discussion about whether to mount a military campaign. Instead, wrote Daniszewski, “the focus” was on “how the campaign should be presented to win the widest support and the importance for Britain of working through the UN so an invasion could be seen as legal under international law.”

There is another sensational revelation in the reporting of Michael Smith that has not been followed up on at all by major American news outlets. He wrote on May 29: “RAF Bombing Raids Tried to Goad Saddam into War.” British and American aircraft had doubled the rate at which they were dropping bombs on Iraq in 2002 in an attempt to provoke Saddam Hussein into giving the allies an excuse for war. The attacks were intensified from May, six months before the United Nations resolution that P.M. Blair argued gave the coalition the legal basis for war.

—American Press With An Attitude

In trying to explain the lagging coverage of the memos by American newspapers—let alone broadcast outlets for whom such matters were beneath the radar—Michael Smith in a Washington Post on-line chat on Thursday offered this opinion: “[A]s the pressure mounted from the outside, there was a defensive attitude: ‘We have said this before, if you the reader didn’t listen well what can we do?’” Smith continued: “It is one thing for the New York Times or the Washington Post to say that we were being told that the intelligence was being fixed by sources inside the CIA or Pentagon or the NSC and quite another to have documentary confirmation in the form of the minutes of a key meeting within the Prime Minister’s office.

“Think of it this way: All the key players were there (at Downing Street). This was the equivalent of an NSC meeting, with the President, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condi Rice, George Tenet, and Tommy Franks all there. They say the evidence against Saddam Hussein is thin, the Brits think regime change is illegal under international law so we are going to have to go to the U.N. to get an ultimatum, not as a way of averting war but as an excuse to make the war legal, and oh by the way we aren’t preparing for what happens after and no one has the faintest idea what Iraq will be like after a war. Not reportable—are you kidding me?

“The Washington Post came to it late but look at everything it is doing now… Sadly there is no sign of the New York Times changing its sniffy we-told-you-this-already-view! … You can be inaccurate just as much by ignoring something as you can by writing it up and getting it wrong.”

John Walcott, Washington bureau chief of Knight Ridder Newspapers, who co-authored one of the first substantial stories about the memo on May 6 (and picked up by E&P at the time), told Howard Kurtz of The Post this week : “We thought it was newsworthy that the British government interpreted their meetings with members of the administration this way and took from it that an attack on Iraq was virtually inevitable.” While some in the press “obviously felt this was old news,” the question remains “whether the information provided to the American public at the time was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

Some newspaper editors said they were stymied by the Associated Press’s lack of coverage of the memo. Deborah Seward, AP’s international editor, said in a statement, “There is no question AP dropped the ball in not picking up on the Downing Street memo sooner.”

But of all the major national newspapers, none have been so deconstructionist, cavalier, and churlish in treating the memos as The New York Times. Todd Purdum, for example, has declared that the documents are not “shocking.” Official evidence of a rush to war not shocking?

It is hard to escape the conclusion that, for the most part, the American print media’s bringing up the rear “beetlebum” approach in covering the memos constituted a rather blatant dereliction of duty. It indicates a complicity in resisting a re-examination of the official lies on the path to war. It is almost enough to make one believe that major media outlets are afraid to take on the White House’s version of truth, either out of worry over being out of step with other “mainstream media,” or because they fear losing access to high-level sources, or because top editors supported, and support, the invasion and occupation of Iraq—and in some well-known cases, their own stories “fixed” intelligence to fit the pro-war view.

But what about the Fourth Estate’s integrity before history?

William E. Jackson, Jr. (letters@editorandpublisher.com) is a former arms control official and top legislative aide in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent contributor to E&P on national security and the press.

 
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