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A Fix on Downing Street

From the June 20, 2005 issue: About that supposed smoking-gun memo.

Jun 20, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 38 • By TOD LINDBERG
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AS LEAKED GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS GO, the "Downing Street Memo" is pretty sexy. Not actually a memo but the official notes of a July 23, 2002, meeting in the British prime minister's office, the document reproduces the thoughts and concerns about Iraq of Tony Blair and his key advisers, including his foreign and defense secretaries, his attorney general, and "C"--code for Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, recently returned from high-level meetings in Washington. Rarely do you find an open window on such a high-level discussion, especially on a matter that will take a country to war a scant nine months later.

The Sunday Times published the document on May 1, along with an accompanying article of some 2,000 words sexing up its contents. Other British media also reported on it, as did the U.S. press, with a scanting yawn.

Anybody who thinks criticism of the "mainstream media" is the special province of right-wing America hasn't been reading the left's complaints about the perfidious media indifference to the memo. For Rep. John Conyers, the leading partisan Democratic websites, and the newly registered downingstreetmemo.com and afterdowningstreet.org, among others, as well as for the hundreds of thousands claiming to have signed petitions demanding a congressional investigation, the "Downing Street Memo" is the smoking gun, proof positive that the Bush administration--well, what exactly?

As C's comments are summarized, he had found in Washington that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" of going to war to remove Saddam, "justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD"; C went on: "Military action was now [as of July 2002] seen as inevitable." According to comments attributed to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, "The case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

There we have it in black and white: Bush lied about WMD and cooked the intelligence to support his position. At last, proof enough to start the impeachment proceedings.

Except, of course, that the folks peddling this story have long been convinced that Bush lied and cooked the intelligence. The question is: What have they got that will persuade someone who is not already a member of the ne plus ultra Bush-hating left?

The answer is nothing. In describing the leaked document in the terms above, I have been faithful to the way in which left-wing bloggers, activists, and assorted hangers-on have described its contents--which is to say, as inflammatorily as possible. But such a tendentious description comes at the expense of fidelity to what the document actually records.

For smoking-gun enthusiasts, the key to the plot is that word "fixed," as in, the fix is in. As in, the intelligence and facts weren't what Bush needed, so he fixed them. The problem with this analysis, if you can call it that, is quite simple: If what is being described is chicanery and wrongdoing in the form of the Bush administration fabricating intelligence, how come nobody in the room with Blair when C drops this bombshell is sufficiently perturbed to do so much as ask a follow-up question? How come Blair's "sofa cabinet" just goes on earnestly discussing the military options?

I know, I know: Because they were in on it! You Brit lefties sit down.

In fact, exactly how is it that the official note-taker at this meeting, Blair's thirtysomething private secretary for foreign affairs--far junior to all others in the room--decided to record this momentous revelation with a colloquialism worthy of a James Cagney gangster movie? The answer is that he is doing no such thing. "Fix" here is clearly meant in its traditional sense, in the sort of English spoken by Oxbridge dons and MI6 directors--to make fast, to set in order, to arrange.

The context of the C comment leaves little room for any other interpretation. John Scarlett, then the head of the Cabinet Office Joint Intelligence Committee (later himself head of MI6, the first to serve openly), has just remarked that "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 knew that regular army morale was poor. Real support for Saddam among the public was probably narrowly based."

C picks up from there. The note-taker, Matthew Rycroft, records the comments as follows:

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.

The point is that the Bush administration seems bent on going to war based on the terrorism/WMD case without going to the U.N. (thus obtaining a legal justification in the Security Council--a point on which C turned out to be wrong) and without "publishing materialon the Iraqi regime's record" (thus making a humanitarian case--which Blair would subsequently emphasize). The "policy" decision was that the case was going to be made on the basis of terrorism/WMD, with the evidence "fixed"--made fast, set in order, arranged--to buttress that case, notwithstanding that, in the view of some present, other cases might be stronger (hence Straw's point about Libya, North Korea, and Iran).

It's striking that the Times's story hyping the memo makes no mention of the "fixed" passage until roughly its 26th paragraph, where the term goes unremarked. Far be it from me to suggest that the Brits have done a better job as custodians of the English language than Americans. But the Brits do at least know how they speak it.

As far as the "inevitable" charge goes, we have been down this road over and over again. It's a pity C didn't tell the Quai d'Orsay about his conclusions that summer. The semi-official line from the French foreign ministry is that officials there didn't conclude the war was inevitable until January 2003. Yes, some in the Bush administration thought from early on that war would be the only way to take care of the Saddam problem. But the decision isn't made until the president says he has decided. That's what makes it a decision.

If you really want to find something scandalous in the "Downing Street Memo," you might focus on the line, "There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action." The Bush administration might have benefited from a little prodding from 10 Downing on that point.

At the Bush-Blair press briefing last week, a Reuters correspondent did ask the two about the memo--without consequential result. But the good ol' "mainstream media" had it about right in concluding that there is nothing in the document but more proof for partisans already persuaded.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.