The Left Hook! Archive


Wed., June 22, 2005

Downing Street Blues

The infamous "Downing Street memo" (DSM) erupted on the pages of the London Times like a nuclear device, and, while the story sent shockwaves of scandal throughout the civilized world, the corporate press in the United States has doggedly followed its usual dismal practice of burying any story more than mildly critical of the current resident of the White House. Nearly two months since its disclosure, most Americans haven't even heard of it.

In July, 2002, Richard Dearlove, head of Britain's MI6, had just returned from the U.S. where he'd been brought up to speed on the Bush administration's plans for Iraq. The minutes of the meeting at which he briefed Prime Minister Tony Blair and his lieutenants on these plans form the substance of the memo. The document provides a behind-the-scenes snapshot of the status of the Bush administration's Iraq policy as of that time, a snapshot which conforms, in almost every detail, to the scenario long suggested by skeptics of the war policy, while standing starkly at odds with that offered for public consumption by the "President" and his underlings. As such, most of the memo's value comes in further cofirming what those of us who had carefully followed the policy had already known. The U.S. invasion of Iraq was already a settled policy matter by the time of the meeting the memo records; in the memo, it's described as "inevitable," and is taken for granted throughout. Bush and his underlings were manipulating intelligence to suit that predetermined war policy ("the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy"). The case against Iraq--the genuine case, not the "fixed" one--is explicitly described as weak; to use the memo's exact language, "the case was thin."

All of this stands in sharp contrast to the portrait of the situation later painted by Bush and his underlings.

For over five months, from the end of August 2002 until the invasion, Bush represented his overtures to the United Nations as a good-faith effort to resolve the matter of Iraq diplomatically. The official story was that Iraq, an imminent threat armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction, trafficking with al Qaida, and thumbing its nose at the world, was being given one last chance to comply with its obligations or face military action, and the idea that Saddam Hussein could avoid an invasion by behaving himself was voiced by Bush and others right up until the invasion.

The transparently duplicitous nature of these remarks was obvious at the time, to anyone who had followed the policy. The memo, however, is official confirmation of the point, removing any remaining squirm-room. The meeting it records is the origin of the subsequent U.S. and British overtures to the UN, and the document explicitly characterizes those overtures as an attempt to provide a legal rationale for starting a war. It's long been known that Bush's taking the matter to the UN was resisted by the war-hawks within the administration--another point further confirmed by the memo--and it's long been believed that Bush acquiesced to adopting this route in order to provide cover for the British. The memo confirms this. The Blair government was, unlike the Bush hawks, concerned with creating some sort of legal rationale for the invasion. The overtures to the UN were intended to provide it. The hope, as expressed in the meeting, was that the UN could be moved to issue an ultimatum to Iraq, and that "Saddam would continue to play hard-ball with the UN," thus providing the rationale for invasion (When Hussein subsequently called the bluff and allowed the return of inspectors, this plan collapsed, and the invasion--again, a settled policy matter before anyone went to the UN--proceeded anyway).

Though the corporate press almost entirely ignored the memo for six weeks after its disclosure, a growing cacaphony among activists--and a number of new disclosures--has made this strategy much more difficult. The newest twist has been to dismiss it, which, in practice, has taken several forms. It's been called "old news," when, in fact, it had only just been released.[1]  Its authenticity has been questioned, when, in fact, British sources have confirmed its authenticity to multiple press agencies. It has been described as outlining a scenario with regard to intelligence manipulation that was "refuted" by a few official investigations, when, in fact, those investigations didn't look into the questions raised by the memo  The clear meaning of "fixed" has been challenged as meaning something in British English that it doesn't mean in American English (they're still guffawing over that one on the other side of the pond). Most extraordinarily, a new British document subseqently leaked to the press which reinforced the contents of the DSM was described by the New York Times as, instead, contradicting it![2]  With over 1,700 Americans now dead and thousands more injured, with no end in sight, the only consistent principle behind such coverage seems to be to protect Bush at all costs.

[1] One variation on this version has been to say the DSM contains "nothing new", on the basis that "everyone knew," by July 2002, that Bush was going to invade Iraq. If true, the very reporters who say this are guilty not only of choosing to keep silent and allowing Bush to get away with a systematic campaign of lies around this issue for three years now, but of acvitely covering up for his lies by reporting his so-called "diplomacy" before the war as a good faith effort to avoid conflict.

[2] It's especially noteworthy that the so-called "contradictory" document was made the subject of this New York Times story the day after it ran in Britain, whereas it was weeks after the release of the DSM that it even received a mention in the pages of the Times.



From: Matthew Rycroft
Date: 23 July 2002
S 195 /02

cc: Defence Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Attorney-General, Sir Richard Wilson, John Scarlett, Francis Richards, CDS, C, Jonathan Powell, Sally Morgan, Alastair Campbell


Copy addressees and you met the Prime Minister on 23 July to discuss Iraq.

This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents.

John Scarlett summarised the intelligence and latest JIC assessment. Saddam's regime was tough and based on extreme fear. The only way to overthrow it was likely to be by massive military action. Saddam was worried and expected an attack, probably by air and land, but he was not convinced that it would be immediate or overwhelming. His regime expected their neighbours to line up with the US. Saddam knew that regular army morale was poor. Real support for Saddam among the public was probably narrowly based.

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. 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.

CDS said that military planners would brief CENTCOM on 1-2 August, Rumsfeld on 3 August and Bush on 4 August.

The two broad US options were:

(a) Generated Start. A slow build-up of 250,000 US troops, a short (72 hour) air campaign, then a move up to Baghdad from the south. Lead time of 90 days (30 days preparation plus 60 days deployment to Kuwait).

(b) Running Start. Use forces already in theatre (3 x 6,000), continuous air campaign, initiated by an Iraqi casus belli. Total lead time of 60 days with the air campaign beginning even earlier. A hazardous option.

The US saw the UK (and Kuwait) as essential, with basing in Diego Garcia and Cyprus critical for either option. Turkey and other Gulf states were also important, but less vital. The three main options for UK involvement were:

(i) Basing in Diego Garcia and Cyprus, plus three SF squadrons.

(ii) As above, with maritime and air assets in addition.

(iii) As above, plus a land contribution of up to 40,000, perhaps with a discrete role in Northern Iraq entering from Turkey, tying down two Iraqi divisions.

The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.

The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. 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 neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. There were different strategies for dealing with Libya and Iran. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.

On the first, CDS said that we did not know yet if the US battleplan was workable. The military were continuing to ask lots of questions.

For instance, what were the consequences, if Saddam used WMD on day one, or if Baghdad did not collapse and urban warfighting began? You said that Saddam could also use his WMD on Kuwait. Or on Israel, added the Defence Secretary.

The Foreign Secretary thought the US would not go ahead with a military plan unless convinced that it was a winning strategy. On this, US and UK interests converged. But on the political strategy, there could be US/UK differences. Despite US resistance, we should explore discreetly the ultimatum. Saddam would continue to play hard-ball with the UN.

John Scarlett assessed that Saddam would allow the inspectors back in only when he thought the threat of military action was real.

The Defence Secretary said that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the US did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.


(a) We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action. But we needed a fuller picture of US planning before we could take any firm decisions. CDS should tell the US military that we were considering a range of options.

(b) The Prime Minister would revert on the question of whether funds could be spent in preparation for this operation.

(c) CDS would send the Prime Minister full details of the proposed military campaign and possible UK contributions by the end of the week.

(d) The Foreign Secretary would send the Prime Minister the background on the UN inspectors, and discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam.

He would also send the Prime Minister advice on the positions of countries in the region especially Turkey, and of the key EU member states.

(e) John Scarlett would send the Prime Minister a full intelligence update.

(f) We must not ignore the legal issues: the Attorney-General would consider legal advice with FCO/MOD legal advisers.

(I have written separately to commission this follow-up work.)


(Rycroft was a Downing Street foreign policy aide)

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