Friday, June 17, 2005
PBS NewsHour claims credit for Downinggate;
may deserve some after last night
The Downing Street Memos were picked up by several bloggers, but received little attention in the mainstream media until last week during Prime Minister Blair's brief visit to Washington. On the NewsHour, Gwen Ifill asked the prime minister if he'd known about the memo.1
They then showed an edited clip of Blair's reply—2
TONY BLAIR: They take bits out here of this memo or that memo, or something someone's supposed to have said at the time, and what people ignore is we went through a very open, obvious process through the United Nations and the issue was how did you -- because the view I took, as the president did, was we had to enforce United Nations resolutions against countries that were developing and proliferating WMD, that after Sept. 11 the world had changed, we had to take a definitive stand.
The place to start was Iraq because it was a breach of U.N. resolutions and instead of going straight to conflict, which we would have done, had this been the done deal everyone accuses us of, we went through the United Nations to give it a last chance. But it didn't work, unfortunately.
This edit had removed Blair's denial, which was—
Basically, the case that people are making, that somehow we'd taken the decision to invade, you know, irrespective of what Iraq did, it's simply not correct.
At the time of the interview Ifill unfortunately did not follow up with two obvious questions—
- You seem to be saying that no firm decision had been made to invade Iraq at the time of memo, is that correct? [Get him on record.]
- Under what circumstances would you not have invaded Iraq? [Since the decision was not taken "irrespective of what Iraq did," what might Iraq have done?]
In fact, she didn't follow up at all. Well, "water under the bridge" as they say.
After the Blair clip, Terence Smith introduced a clip of Bush, who of course lacked the subtlety of Blair, making the lies all the more evident—
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Somebody said we had made up our mind to use military force to deal with Saddam. There is nothing farther from the truth. My conversation with the prime minister was, "How can we do this peacefully?"
How can you lie with a straight face when you don't have a straight face?
Terence Smith then summed up the day's events—
TERENCE SMITH: Today in Washington, the issue gathered more steam as congressional Democrats held a forum to discuss it. In the Senate, Democratic Leader Harry Reid cited the British memo as one more reason to delay a vote on the nomination of John Bolton as United Nations ambassador. But at the White House today, Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the administration would not respond to the Democrats because it was not interested in rehashing what he called "old debates."
Let me say at the outset that what made last night's segment such a blockbuster was not the reporting—the NewsHour does very little reporting—but that they brought on former CIA analyst Ray McGovern to comment.
Margaret Warner introduced her two commentators—McGovern and Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA agent in the Middle East until the mid-'90s who is now a resident fellow at the thinktank whose job is to provide right-wing spinmeisters for the media—the American Enterprise Institute.
Warner got off to a bad start, but McGovern quickly straightened her out—
[MARGARET WARNER:] .... Mr. McGovern, beginning with you, okay, make your case, take the original Downing Street Memo from July 2003. How does that prove, as you critics charge, that President Bush that early, July 2002, had decided to go to war?
RAY McGOVERN: Well, let me first say that I'm not out to make a case. I'm a professional intelligence officer, retired, who has the ethos of just trying to find out where the facts lead me.
The facts here are this: On July 23, 2002, Richard Dearlove, the head of Britain's CIA, came back from a long visit to Washington where he consulted with the top U.S. officials including George Tenet, his opposite number. His big news was threefold: There had been a major change and now war was seen as inevitable. The president was determined to remove Saddam Hussein by force, and force regime change that way; that this was to be, in quotes, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.
Now let me translate that from British English -- justified by the thought that Iraq has all this weapons of mass destruction, and is likely to give it to terrorists. And finally, when Jack Straw, the foreign minister said, well, the evidence on weapons of mass destruction is rather thin was his word, Dearlove, the head of the British intelligence says, no problem; the intelligence and the facts are being fixed around the policy.
This is documentary. This is a secret minutes of this meeting prepared the same day; it's of a different species of all the other circumstantial evidence we have that the president had long since decided to do war. And so the circumstances, you can forget circumstantial, we have a flaming -- we have a smoking gun here, and we have something equivalent to the Nixon tapes on Watergate.
It was then poor Reuel Gerecht's turn, who was never a CIA analyst anyway. First he tried to muddy the water by suggesting that maybe the head of British intelligence simply made up his report! Then he fell back on the findings of the Silberman-Robb Commission—
REUEL GERECHT: Well, that's not actually, I think, clear. I mean it's not impossible that the head of British intelligence for example was opposed to the war and might take interpretation as way from Washington that would reinforce that position.
What we do know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the Robb-Silverman3 commission, which is certainly the most exhaustive treatment of the WMD and war in Iraq issue, came away with a very clear judgment that the president of the United States, the administration had not tried to distort the intelligence, had not tried to manhandle CIA analysts. In fact, the opposite conclusion was drawn. And that is that they should have challenged CIA analysts much more rigorously on the information they had about WMD.4
Warner helps him out a little—
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that these are [British head of intelligence] Dearlove's conclusions, but that doesn't prove that this was in fact the state of play in Washington??
Gerecht continued with the muddy-the-water approach by asserting the obvious—that not everybody, everywhere in the government agreed that invading Iraq was a good idea. He used that to attempt to discredit Dearlove. But of course whether there were sane people in the government is not the issue. We already know that. The issue is whether Bush and Blair had already made the decision.
REUEL GERECHT: No, I don't think so at all. In fact, for those who are in Washington who may know individuals inside the government, particularly inside the Pentagon, which everybody assumes, it was the most pro-war section of the administration. I mean, a lot of people had a great deal of hesitation, reservations that in fact the United States was going to go to war even as late as the fall of 2002. The suggestion here that everything was more or less a foregone conclusion I think is really pretty tendentious and not historically credible.
So Warner asks McGovern to respond—
MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. McGovern, let's talk about the Dearlove conclusions here, because isn't this fairly fourth-hand[?] In other words, these notes are being written by a foreign policy aide about a meeting, they're minutes. He's reporting what Dearlove report[ed] based on his conversations with George Tenet in Washington, about what Tenet thinks the state of play is, say, at the White House, and in the administration.
That is quite a chain, isn't it? Isn't it possible that in fact these may be the head of British intelligence's assessment, but he was wrong?
RAY McGOVERN: No, I don't believe that that's possible at all. Who would know better than the head of the CIA as to whether the intelligence and facts were being fixed to fit the policy.
What we have here is a very interesting situation where the Britons, the British were really in high dudgeon; they were being forced to go along with this war, they were forced to make or allow the US to use two of their bases in Cypress and in Diego Garcia and therefore become ipso facto accomplices in this war, and their attorney general kept saying in these documents a regime change has no legal basis for war.
And so they find themselves dancing around, trying to find some other reason for war and they hit on the UN, but the UN is only raised in the sense of ["]let's propose the kind of strict regime for inspections that we know Saddam Hussein will reject, and then we'll have a process, really, then we can make war.["]
And Saddam Hussein of course outfoxed them, he accepted the most strict regime of inspections in modern world history, and the UN went in there and they were doing their job. When they found something that was above and beyond the range allowed on one of these missiles, what happened? Saddam Hussein allowed the UN inspectors to destroy about 90 of those el-Samoud missiles.
So the inspection regime was working. The US policy had been set. And it was set earlier than July of 2002. And there's lots of circumstantial evidence for that. But as I say now we have a document, an internal British document, firsthand. The fellow who wrote the minutes was there, it was prepared the same day. He sent to it all the people who there were -- there were 13. And there was no objection, and Tony Blair has vouched for its authenticity. He has not denied that this is an authentic document.
The UN cover for the war
Gerecht did some more thrashing about, reinvoking the "Robb-Silberman report," and then Warner posed a question about going to the UN.
MARGARET WARNER: .... Quote, we should work up a plan with an ultimatum to Saddam to let back in the U.N. weapons inspectors, this would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.
And one conclusion of the meeting is that Straw will "discreetly work up the ultimatum to Saddam." What does that say to you about the exercise of going to the UN and all those fronts, was that on the level?
Gerecht's astonishing response was that the British Foreign Office was being overly "legalistic," that in the U.S. it is the President and Congress who decide whether a war is "right and just." Then he threw in a reference to 9/11 just for good measure.
REUEL GERECHT: Yeah. Well, I mean, I think what's going on there is, I mean, the British are trying to develop, they have a much more, what you might say legalistic ambition on the war. I mean they turn and want to have some law officers give them an opinion of whether a war is right and just.
In the United States -- that is the duty and responsibility of the president of the United States and the Congress. We invest in them that responsibility and authority. I mean what's striking about the memos, I have to say, is the extent to which the bureaucracy in Great Britain, particularly the foreign ministry, is actually very hesitant about going to war, and you come away very much appreciating the boldness of Tony Blair, that in fact he agrees with President Bush, we live in a post-9/11 world.
By this time Ray McGovern could be heard chuckling in the background.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mr. McGovern, you're dying to get back in, I can tell.
RAY McGOVERN: No, I was just thinking that Reuel is of the school of Richard Perle, who right after the war started was asked about the legality of the war and he said, you know, sometimes you just have to violate international law to do the right thing.
The Manning memo
Warner then posed some questions raised by the Manning memo
MARGARET WARNER: [quoting from the memo] ... "in March, Condi's enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed, but there were some signs since we last spoke of greater awareness of the practical difficulties and political risks." And later on he reports also, I don't have the exact quote here, but that his belief is that President Bush really does want to hear from Prime Minister Blair when they meet in Crawford in April, which is the next month, before making a final decision. Doesn't that suggest that at least in March, in fact, the White House still was wrestling with whether to go?
RAY McGOVERN: Well, I'm not at all surprised that Condoleezza Rice would tell David Manning that. After all, Tony Blair was coming to Crawford, and she wasn't about to say, look, the decision has already been made, we'll listen to you but we won't take your views into account. No, that doesn't surprise me at all.
I would go back to an earlier conversation, and this happened on the 20th of September, 2001, so nine days after 9/11. This involved Tony Blair, who was in Washington having dinner with the president. How do we know about this? We know this because Christopher Meyer, the UK ambassador, was there at the dinner, and he's written his memoirs.
And what does he say? The conversation went like this. President Bush: "Tony we're going to Afghanistan in a week or two, but that won't take long and we get out of there and go right into Iraq, are you with me Tony? Are you with me?"
And Christopher Meyer says my goodness, it was really, that Tony was sort of nonplused but he said "Yes sir, I'm with you, Mr. President."
Warner was being rushed and managed to misunderstand McGovern's answer, so McGovern had to clear that up—
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. McGovern, speed up just a little because we're almost out of time. Get to the next part.
RAY McGOVERN: Sure, okay, that's it.
MARGARET WARNER: So it's not about Iraq, it's about Afghanistan.
RAY McGOVERN: Well, no, no, this has to do with Iraq. What the president said to Tony Blair on the 20th of September, according to the UK ambassador who was there is, we're going into Afghanistan in a couple of weeks, it won't take us long there and we're going right into Iraq right after that. Are you with me? And Tony Blair said yes.
Finally Gerecht was given the last word. This time he implied that the decision to go to war must have been made later—since the prewar planning was so inadequate!
REUEL GERECHT: I would like to believe it's true [that the decision was made so early]. I think the appropriate criticism of the Bush administration is that it should have made the decision to go to war sooner so we could have had a better discussion about what we were going to do.Throughout the interview Gerecht reveals the talking points and ploys that right-wingers will be using in the days ahead—
- Muddy the waters. Say the memos don't mean what they say, or that the authors of the memos didn't mean what they said, or that the authors of the memos simply lacked the information.
- Claim that the Silberman-Robb Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction has already investigated this timeframe and has exonerated the President.
- Offer the red herring that there were persons in the Pentagon and in other areas of government who were opposing the Iraq invasion during this period.
- Argue that the hastiness of the decision to go to war is proved by the inadequacy of the planning. (It will be interesting to see how often they use this one!)
GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you about something which is finally, belatedly, getting some attention here, and got a great deal of attention in Britain and that's the so-called "Downing Street Memo," which surfaced as a memo that was very critical of the Iraq War.[back]
In fact, I'll read part of it, where it says that Bush had made up his mind to take military action even if the timing was not yet decided but the case was thin, that is, the case for war in Iraq, which of course you were one of the president's staunchest supporters on this. What do you make of that memo? Did you know about it?
2Blair's complete response was—
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Basically, the case that people are making, that somehow we'd taken the decision to invade, you know, irrespective of what Iraq did, it's simply not correct. The whole reason we went to the United Nations back in, originally in September 2002, then with the resolution in November 2002, was precisely in order to see if there was a way of giving Iraq a last chance to come into compliance with the United Nations resolutions and avoid conflict. But they didn't.[back]
And so when people -- you know, they take bits out here of this memo or that memo, or something someone's supposed to have said at the time, and what people ignore is we went through a very open, obvious process through the United Nations and the issue was how did you -- because the view I took, as the president did, was we had to enforce United Nations resolutions against countries that were developing and proliferating WMD, that after September the 11 the world had changed, we had to take a definitive stance.
The place to start was Iraq 'cause it was a breach of U.N. resolutions and instead of going straight to conflict, which we would have done, had this been the "done deal" everyone accuses us of, we went through the United Nations to give it a last chance. But it didn't work, unfortunately.
3This is a cute little ploy. Gerecht attempts to make it seem like a Democratic investigation by putting the Democrat's name first. This is a reversal of the normal reference to the commission. Damn, these guys work on their message. [back]
4For an analysis of what the committee actually did and didn't say, John Prados' "Intelligent Manipulation" is a good place to start. As Prados wrote, "the politicization of intelligence was the 'smoking gun' for this administration, and Judge Silberman just issued a get-out-of-jail-free card." [back]