The Magazine

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: