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The Memo, the Press, and the War: An Exchange

In response to:

'The Secret Way to War': An Exchange from the July 14, 2005 issue

Writing about the Iraq war and the Downing Street memo in the July 14th issue, Mark Danner commented on a recent column by Michael Kinsley, “No Smoking Gun.”1 Mr. Kinsley has now responded. His letter and Mark Danner’s reply appear below.

To the Editors:

It’s easy to appreciate the frustration of “Downing Street Memo” enthusiasts like Mark Danner. They think they have documentary proof that President Bush had firmly decided to go to war against Iraq by July 2002. Yet some people say the memo isn’t newsworthy because the charge is not true, while others say the memo isn’t newsworthy because the charge is so obviously true. A smoking gun is sitting there on the table, but he’s going to get away with murder because everyone—for different reasons—won’t pick it up.

And I think Danner is right to resent the whole “smoking gun” business—an artifact of Watergate—which comes close to establishing the old Chico Marx joke, “Who are you gonna believe: me or your own two eyes,” as a serious standard of proof. Not every villain is going to tape record his villiany. George W. Bush, as I noted in the column that Danner objects to, is especially good at insisting that reality is what he would like it to be, and the smoking-gun standard helps him to get away with this.

But the DSM is worthless if it is not a smoking gun—not because I need a smoking gun to be persuaded (a “cynical and impotent attitude,” Danner says), but precisely because people who don’t require a smoking gun are already persuaded. And the document is just not that smoking gun. It basically says that the conventional wisdom in Washington in July 2002 was that Bush had made up his mind and war was certain. “What,” Danner asks, “could be said to establish ‘truth’—to ‘prove it’?” I suggested in the column that it would have been nice if the memo had made clear that the people saying facts were fixed and war was certain were actual administration decision-makers. Danner asks, Who else could the head of British intelligence, reporting on the mood and gossip of “Washington,” be talking about if not “actual decision-makers”? He has got to be kidding.

In short, the DSM will not persuade anyone who is not already persuaded. That doesn’t make it wrong. But that does make the memo fairly worthless.

Michael Kinsley
Los Angeles Times

Mark Danner replies:

For more than two years the United States has been fighting a war in Iraq that was launched in the cause of destroying weapons that turned out not to exist. One might have thought such a strange and unprecedented historical event—which has thus far cost the lives of nearly eighteen hundred young Americans, and counting—might attract the strong and sustained interest of a free press. It has—in Great Britain. In the United States when it comes to this central issue of our politics we have in general been treated to the vaguely depressing spectacle of a great many very intelligent people struggling very hard to make themselves stupid. Such has been the general plot line of the press reception of the so-called Downing Street memo and the other government documents associated with it, which tell much about how the Iraq war actually began.2 I’m afraid the admirable Michael Kinsley, in dismissing the memo as “worthless” (he later promotes it to “fairly worthless”), once again rather exemplifies this trend.

Though leaders in the United Kingdom and the United States have tried hard to cast the memo as something exotic and recondite—“people…take bits out here of this memo or that memo, or something someone’s supposed to have said at the time,” as Prime Minister Tony Blair put it in Washington last month3—in fact the document is nothing more than the record of a meeting Blair had with his highest officials at 10 Downing Street on July 23, 2002. Despite Blair’s dismissal of the memo, no one, including him, has suggested that the minutes of the meeting—the equivalent of a National Security Council meeting in the United States—are anything but genuine. The Downing Street memo is an actual record of what Britain’s highest officials were saying, in private, about the coming Iraq war eight months before the war started.

The meeting began—as indeed most National Security Council meetings begin—with a summary of the current intelligence. Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, Britain’s equivalent of the CIA, had just returned from high-level consultations in the United States. To begin the discussion, then, Sir Richard “reported on his recent talks in Washington.” Here once again, in its entirety, is the report Sir Richard gave to his prime minister and his colleagues:

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.

Mr. Kinsley contends that here Sir Richard is reporting on “the mood and gossip of ‘Washington’”—as opposed, he says, to the views of “actual administration decision-makers.” I am unsure whom Kinsley thinks the head of British intelligence sees when he takes a secret trip to Washington to consult with his country’s most important ally about a coming war. We know Sir Richard met with Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet, his opposite number, who, as a cabinet member who briefs the President personally every morning, would presumably be considered an “actual administration decision-maker.” We can assume that the other calls that the head of British intelligence paid during his “talks in Washington” were at a comparably high level.

Of course, none of Sir Richard’s colleagues, including his prime minister, demand to know who his sources were. And yet they go forward with the meeting, taking Sir Richard’s central points—that war is inevitable, that intelligence is being fixed to prepare for it and for a “justification” based on “the conjunction of terrorism and WMD,” and that the United States will resist going “the UN route”—as the point of departure, setting off a discussion (the true heart of the memo) of the need to persuade the United States to “go the UN route” to give some clothing of legality to a war the legal case for which, as the foreign secretary says, is quite “thin.” Why is it, one might ask, that the prime minister and the highest security officials of Great Britain do not demand that Sir Richard reveal his sources—why is it, in other words, that these officials are so much more credulous than Michael Kinsley?

Could it be because the prime minister and other officials think Sir Richard on his return from Washington is bringing from officials at the highest levels of the American government (“actual administration decision-makers”) information of the highest reliability—information, no doubt, that echoes what the cabinet ministers themselves have been hearing from their own Washington opposite numbers?

Indeed, if, as Mr. Kinsley contends, what Sir Richard tells his prime minister and his colleagues represents not the views of “actual administration decision-makers” but the “mood and gossip of ‘Washington,’” then does it not seem rather odd that the highest officials of Great Britain, America’s closest ally, would rely on it to make their own most vital decisions of national security? Does it not seem rather more plausible to believe what Prime Minister Blair and his ministers all seem to believe: that what Sir Richard says in his report represents the definitive views of “actual administration decision-makers” and not the speculations of journalists or cab drivers? As Michael Smith, the London Times reporter—and strong Iraq war supporter—who first published this document, said when asked about the authority and sources of Sir Richard Dearlove,

This was the head of MI6. How much authority do you want the man to have? He has just been to Washington, he has just talked to George Tenet. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. That translates in clearer terms as the intelligence was being cooked to match what the administration wanted it to say to justify invading Iraq. Fixed means the same here as it does there.4

Who—in Kinsley’s phrase—has got to be kidding?

There is, of course, the further point, not a minor one, that pretty much everything Sir Richard says in his little summary turns out to be true. America and Britain did go to war to remove Saddam. Military action was justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. The US did have no idea what to do in “the aftermath after military action.” And the intelligence and facts were fixed around the policy.

Of course, according to the rules under which Kinsley, and much of the rest of the American press, profess to be playing, one cannot say this; after all, this is the case that the Downing Street memo, all by itself, must be shown to prove. But the requirement is purely artificial. Though, scandalously, the country has had no properly constituted investigation, congressional or otherwise, empowered to look into policymakers’ use of intelligence before the Iraq war—indeed, such investigations as there have been have explicitly excluded precisely this central issue5—an avalanche of other proof has shown how the ad-ministration “fixed the facts” around its policy of invading Iraq.

It is plain by now that the intelligence the CIA and other US agencies produced on Iraq and its weapons programs was poor, and was built on shockingly shallow information. It is also plain that Bush administration officials, far from pressing the agencies for the best, most reliable intelligence, instead relentlessly and blatantly exaggerated the slender intelligence that the government did possess, in order to make its case for war. Though thus far the administration has managed to block a true investigation of this misuse of intelligence by policymakers, and the Republican-controlled Congress has gone along, many examples of it are already known to the public.

One could cite President Bush’s insistence on telling the world that “Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” when the CIA had explicitly warned him that it could not confirm this information. One could point to the administration’s doctoring of the declassified version of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq given to Congress in October 2002, in which all of the considerable qualifiers included in the original report were removed. One could quote the repeated references by Vice President Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, and other officials to “reconstituted nuclear weapons” and a “smoking gun becoming a mushroom cloud,” when the administration had little or no real evidence to prove Iraq had an ongoing nuclear program.

The fact is that the administration blatantly exaggerated the intelligence it was given to convince the country to go to war—“rolling out the new product,” as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card called the coming public relations campaign in August 2002—and then, after the fall of Baghdad, when the weapons of mass destruction refused to turn up, the President and other administration officials blamed the CIA and other agencies for supplying intelligence that was “misleading.” Having politicized the intelligence before the war, administration officials turned around and blamed the intelligence agencies for misleading them—with the very intelligence that they themselves had politicized.

That the Republican Congress—and notably the Senate Intelligence Committee—has failed to fully investigate this is not news; as I wrote in my article, the committee first separated the question of “policymakers’ use of intelligence” from the question of the performance of the intelligence agencies themselves, then helpfully postponed its investigation of the first question—the critical question—until after the election; now the promised report has been abandoned altogether. Still, the administration’s “fixing of the facts and intelligence around the policy” has been quite well documented in other, public sources.6 Indeed, one catches glimpses of it even in the severely circumscribed reports that Congress and the administration have allowed to be produced.7 That is, if anyone still needs to be convinced; as Kinsley writes in his original column, “we know now that was true and a half. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the war in Iraq.”

If Kinsley is convinced that it is “true and a half” that the Bush “governing style, especially concerning the war in Iraq,” is to “fix intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy,” then what exactly was the evidence that convinced him? On this point he is silent. Presumably he has gained this conviction after reading various accounts of the decision-making leading up to the war, notably Bob Woodward’s and Richard Clarke’s; after examining certain documents, such as those I have cited; and after watching the progress of events during the last several years. Presumably the Downing Street memo would bolster these conclusions by shoring up the various secondhand and other sources with the actual recorded words of “actual decision-makers” who are discussing the decisions themselves during the months preceding the war. By insisting on applying an artificially and narrowly legalistic standard to the Downing Street memo, Kinsley discards as “worthless” a higher order of historical evidence than has yet been made public. To reduce serious analysis to a legalistic game in this way impoverishes the attempt to chronicle the real history of a war in which Americans, and Iraqis, are still dying. It means, in effect, deliberately blindfolding ourselves.

We come by information incrementally, and give it sense by placing it in a context we have already constructed; that is why Kinsley’s “test” for whether or not the Downing Street memo is “worthless” is so misguided. Those who do look at the memo’s account of the cabinet meeting with some honesty—and I urge readers to go to the memo itself; it is barely three pages long and The New York Review has published it in full8—will find it confirms a precise historical narrative of the run-up to the war. It is clearly written and, notwithstanding the comments of Kinsley and others, unambiguous.

What is most deadening and in the end saddening about Kinsley’s letter and earlier article is the attitude they exemplify toward history; we see here a deliberate impoverishment, a turning of inquiry and, at bottom, of curiosity into a dull and sterile game of black and white, played by rules that fail to reflect what anyone actually believes. Such rules dovetail perfectly with the grim and gray shutting down of information elsewhere in the Republic, as evidenced most prominently by the Republican-controlled Congress, which, having endorsed a war in the name of destroying weapons that turned out not to exist, has responded by forbidding any thorough investigation into precisely how such a strange set of events could come to pass. Kinsley, like many others in the American press, wants to judge the memo’s “worth” on whether or not it contains, as he says, “documentary proof that President Bush had firmly decided to go to war against Iraq by July 2002.” As I have written, such “documentary proof”—if we are talking about firm and incontrovertible evidence of what was in Mr. Bush’s mind at the time—is destined to prove elusive; the President can always claim, all appearances and outward evidence to the contrary, that he “hadn’t made up his mind.” And so he has claimed.

The fact is that this is not what is most important about the memo and about the documents that have accompanied it. What the memo clearly shows is that the decision to “go to the United Nations” was in large part a response to the British concern that “the legal case for war” was “thin,” in the words of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. In other words, securing the blessing of the United Nations Security Council was thought to be the only way to give the war a legal clothing. It is worth quoting this passage in full, for Straw puts the matter with admirable concision:

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 original idea of “the UN route,” as set out by the foreign secretary and prime minister, was to issue an ultimatum to Saddam that he allow into Iraq a new team of UN inspectors and then, when he refused the ultimatum, to use his refusal as a justification to invade the country under Security Council mandate. It “would make a big difference politically and legally,” as Prime Minister Tony Blair observes in the meeting, “if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.” What the memo made clear, as I wrote, is that “the inspectors were introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible.”

On these matters Mr. Kinsley says nothing, either in his original article or in his letter, because he is concerned only with a single question: Does the memo offer “documentary proof that President Bush had firmly decided to go to war against Iraq by July 2002”? Having decided that the memo falls short of passing this stern test, he deems the document “worthless.” Like many in the American press, he is so obsessed with finding the “smoking gun” that he pretty much manages to miss the point of what is in front of him.

In the event, of course, Saddam Hussein did not, as was hoped, reject the inspectors out of hand. He admitted them, and President Bush and Prime Minister Blair found themselves forced to demand their withdrawal—against the wishes of the Security Council and before they had completed their task—in order to begin the invasion of Iraq. The UN route, as it turned out, was messy; it meant arguing publicly with Hans Blix and other UN officials, fighting for and ultimately failing to secure a second Security Council resolution that would have blessed an invasion of Iraq, and finally withdrawing the inspectors when they had examined barely one hundred of the six hundred or so suspect sites—leaving the inspections to be concluded only after the fall of Baghdad, when the American Iraqi Survey Group finally ascertained what the UN team might have concluded before the war: that Saddam had destroyed his weapons of mass destruction long before.

Of course, in retrospect, the plot line would have been much “cleaner” if Saddam had obliged the British and the Americans by refusing to allow in the inspectors in the first place, as Prime Minister Tony Blair had hoped he would. President Bush had clearly hoped the same thing; indeed, in absent moments, he apparently goes on hoping it. Several months after the fall of Baghdad, sitting beside UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in the Oval Office, the President offered this version of his pre-war policy toward Saddam Hussein:

We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.9

It seems unlikely that President Bush had failed to notice that Saddam had admitted the inspectors into his country. More plausibly, the President is simply making a slip of the tongue of the sort anyone could make—a slip prompted by a bit of wish fulfillment, with the President substituting what he and Tony Blair had wished would happen for what actually, in the event, did happen.

History is rich in this sort of thing, of course; understanding “what actually happened” is an ongoing task, demanding a constant reformulation of what we believe based on what we know. What is most dispiriting about the reception of the Downing Street memo and the other documents associated with it is the general willingness of reporters and commentators in this country to perform a complicated and willful act of shutting down their own minds and obliterating their own curiosity. Michael Smith, the London Times repor-ter, described the strange attitude of his American colleagues:

There was a feeling of, “Well, we said that way back when.” Then of course as 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.” …[But] 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 with the Prime Minister’s office.

…This was the equivalent of an NSC meeting…. 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 UN to get an ultimatum, not as a way of averting war but as an excuse to make the war legal…. Not reportable, are you kidding me?

A good deal of this “defensive attitude,” certainly, as Smith implies, derives from the shortcomings of American reporting during the run-up to the war, when newspapers and broadcast stations showed very little skepticism about administration claims of Saddam’s supposedly threatening arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.10 Though in the months since, the country’s most influential newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, in an unprecedented step, have explicitly apologized for their pre-war reporting, it is less clear that individual reporters feel that they made any mistakes, and many bristle at any implication that they did. The Downing Street memo serves, among other things, as a not very subtle reminder that much of the press was duped by the government in a rather premeditated and quite successful way. No one likes to be reminded of this, certainly not reporters and the institutions they work for; claiming the memo is “not reportable,” in Smith’s words, not only avoids revisiting a painful passage in American journalism but does so by asserting that the story “had already been covered”—that is, that it had never been missed in the first place. When it comes to the war, much of American journalism has little more institutional interest in reexamining the past than the Bush administration itself.

We must be grateful that the American polity is broader and more complex than the American press. Kinsley claims that the Downing Street memo

will not persuade anyone who is not already persuaded. That doesn’t make it wrong. But it does make the memo fairly worthless.

But it is Kinsley who is quite demonstrably wrong on this question. Whether or not the memo will “persuade anyone who is not already persuaded” is of course an empirical question and I know myself a number of people who have been so persuaded. And the fact that more than half of all Americans now believe the President and his administration intentionally “misled the American public before the war” seems a rather strong suggestion that, as a matter of persuasion and of politics, the Downing Street memo is very far from worthless.11 The number of Americans who hold this view is likely to continue to grow. These are simply people who have begun to notice the widening gap between what they are told and what they see—a gap that, when it comes to the Iraq war, is becoming harder and harder to ignore. I would not call these people, in Kinsley’s phrase, “Downing Street memo enthusiasts.” Better to adopt a denigrating phrase from a Bush administration adviser and dub them members of the “reality-based community.”12 Their ranks are growing, and it may be that in the coming days some in the press will leave off the increasingly hard work of avoiding recent history and come and join them.

  1. 1

    See The Washington Post, June 12, 2005.

  2. 2

    See my article, “The Secret Way to War,” The New York Review, June 9, 2005.

  3. 3

    In an interview with Gwen Ifill on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, June 7, 2005.

  4. 4

    See “The Downing Street Memo,” The Washington Post, June 16, 2005; interview with Michael Smith, Washington Post online, www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/con tent/discussion/2005/06/14/DI2005061401261_pf.html.

  5. 5

    For example, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, commonly known as the Robb-Silberman Commission, notes that the executive order which established it “did not authorize us to investigate how policymakers used the intelligence they received from the Intelligence Community on Iraq’s weapons programs.” This prohibition, also included in the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee’s report, derived, as the Times remarked on the report’s release, “from the mandate [the President] gave it more than a year ago, when the White House feared the issue could affect the election.” See Scott Shane and David Sanger, “Bush Panel Finds Big Flaws Remain in US Spy Efforts,” The New York Times, April 1, 2005.

  6. 6

    See, for publicly available documents, the excellent early report, “WMD in Iraq: Evidence and Implications” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003), and also John Prados, Hoodwinked: The Documents That Reveal How Bush Sold Us a War (New Press, 2004).

  7. 7

    Even the Robb-Silberman report notes, in the words of an unidentified national intelligence officer, “a ‘zeitgeist‘ or general ‘climate’ of policymaker focus on Iraq’s WMD that permeated the analytical atmosphere” and “was formed in part, the NIO claimed, by the gathering conviction among analysts that war with Iraq was inevitable….” Elsewhere the commissioners conceded that “it is hard to deny the conclusion that intelligence analysts worked in an environment that did not encourage skepticism about the conventional wisdom.” See the Report of the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, pp. 190 and 11.

  8. 8

    The text can also be found widely online, including at downingstreetmemo.com.

  9. 9

    See “President Reaffirms Strong Position on Liberia,” July 14, 2003, available at the White House Web site, www.whitehouse.gov /news/releases/2003/07/200302714-3.html.

  10. 10

    See Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us,” The New York Review, February 26, 2004.

  11. 11

    The exact number is 52 percent, an increase of nine points in three months. See The Washington Post/ABC poll, and the report by Richard Morin and Dan Balz, “Survey Finds Most Support Staying in Iraq,” The Washington Post, June 28, 2005.

  12. 12

    See Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” The New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.

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