Politics & Policy

Causing a Commotion

"Downing Street Memo" is old news.

It is July 2002. A British report notes that Prime Minister Tony Blair had “decided Britain must back any US assault and had ordered defence planners to begin the preparations for a new war in the Gulf.” The report claims “President Bush has already made up his mind. This is going to happen. It is a given … What we are waiting for is to be told the details of how and when and where.”

A shocking secret document recently leaked from Whitehall? No, it is the London Observer, in an article published July 21, 2002, p. 2. Two days later nearly identical language would be recorded in the so-called “Downing Street Memo,” the minutes of a British cabinet meeting recorded by foreign-policy aide Matthew Rycroft and published “gotcha!” style days before the recent parliamentary election.

The memo raises three issues dear to the hearts of President Bush’s critics–the timing of the decision to go to war with Saddam, the WMD rationale, and the use (read: abuse) of intelligence to create the casus belli. One paragraph in the memo conveniently contains all three:

C [Richard Dearlove, Head of MI-6] 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.

This and other excerpts have caused a furor on the American Left. Ralph Nader is calling for impeachment (again), and John Kerry has vowed to bring the matter to the Senate floor. Of course, the memo simply contains the impressions of an aide of the impressions of British-cabinet officials of the impressions of unnamed people they spoke to in the United States about what they thought the president was thinking. It is sad when hearsay thrice-removed raises this kind of ruckus, especially since a version had been reported three years ago. As smoking guns go, it is not high caliber.

Was the president committed to go to war with Iraq in July 2002?

In the summer of 2002 the policy of the United States was that Saddam Hussein should be removed from power. However, that does not mean that the decision to go to war had already been made.

Contingency planning for military operations against Iraq had begun as early as November 2001. This is no secret; the full timeline along with a wealth of details can be found in General Tommy Franks’s memoir American Solider. The plan that became known as OPLAN 1003V began to be put together in earnest in January 2002. The existence of war planning does not in itself prove that the use of force was inevitable. The purpose was to provide the president with the full range of credible alternatives for pursuing U.S. policy vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Regime change had been U.S. policy since October 31, 1998, when President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act. It was not a state secret. On February 12, 2002, Colin Powell stated that “With respect to Iraq, it has long been, for several years now, a policy of the United States government that regime change would be in the best interests of the region, the best interests of the Iraqi people. And we are looking at a variety of options that would bring that about.” The policy had bipartisan support; in June 2002 Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said, “There is broad support for a regime change in Iraq. The question is how do we do it and when do we do it.” It was also an international objective. On April 6, 2002, during a summit in Crawford, Texas, Prime Minister Blair said that regime change in Iraq was the policy of Great Britain, and that failure to act against Saddam was “not an option.” Blair pledged to support military action against Iraq, should that become necessary.

But had the president made up his mind that regime change would necessitate war? British journalist Trevor McDonald sparred with the president at the summit to try to get him to say so, but Bush stuck to his position. “I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go,” he said. “That’s about all I’m willing to share with you.”

What the president would not share was that other means were already being employed. The Downing Street Memo mentions “spikes of activity,” which probably refers to the program of covert operations begun against Iraq in the spring of 2002. This program was revealed the following June. Covert action against Iraq was hardly controversial. On June 16, 2002, on ABC’s This Week, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt said that congressional leaders had been briefed on the secret directive by the White House, and stated that “It is an appropriate action to take. I hope it succeeds in its quest.” Senator Joseph Biden, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Face the Nation, “If the covert action doesn’t work, we better be prepared to move forward with another action, an overt action, and it seems to me that we can’t afford to miss.”

By the time the Downing Street Memo was written overt action against Iraq was being widely discussed, spurred in part by the July 5, 2002, publication of some of the war plans in the New York Times. (A previous version had been leaked in May by the Los Angeles Times.) The July 5 article led to rampant speculation about the inevitability of war, especially in Britain, and whomever Dearlove and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw were talking to then may well have been reflecting this mood. Moreover, either Dearlove or Straw, or one of their staff, may well have been the “Whitehall source” for the Observer piece two days before the cabinet meeting in question. Either that or they read it in the paper and repeated it at the meeting. My question: Had they ever spoken to the president to get his views first-person?

Why use WMDs as a rationale for war?

In the July 25, 2002, memo, Foreign Secretary Straw is said to have said,

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 [Lord Goldsmith] 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.

The WMDs justification for regime change was of course not new. On November 26, 2001, President Bush was asked what would happen if Saddam Hussein did not allow U.N. weapons inspectors back into Iraq. “He’ll find out,” he replied. The president had grown concerned with a scenario that came to be known in policy circles as the “nexus,” a potential relationship between rogue states, nuclear weapons, and terrorists acting as delivery systems. The president was referring to this in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address when he said, “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” That the WMD issue was viewed as diplomatically useful, i.e., the easiest way to invoke international law, is not a surprise. Former Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz stated as much in his May 9-10, 2003, interview with Sam Tannenhaus of Vanity Fair (see also NRO analysis here).

The WMD approach worked exactly as intended. The Downing Street Memo is a very good analytical piece, and demonstrates a sound understanding of Saddam’s emotional state and probable future moves. The cabinet discusses presenting Saddam with an ultimatum to let the U.N. inspectors back in, knowing that this would either settle the question, or lead to recalcitrance and defiance on Saddam’s part, creating circumstances justifying intervention. As a strategic analysis, it is spot on, and it formed the road map for the eventual lead-up to war. Of course Saddam could have simply cooperated with the U.N. and denied the Coalition any pretext for intervening; was it the Coalition’s fault that he reverted to type and disregarded the U.N. resolution?

Unfortunately, so much emphasis was placed on the WMD rationale that the failure to turn up the expected weapons brought the entire regime-change effort into question. However, there were other ways the U.N. might have been engaged. The mismanagement and barefaced corruption of the “Oil for Food” program could have been leveraged for this same purpose.

Was the WMD Intelligence Faked?

Dearlove’s comments include the intriguing passage noted above, “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.” To the president’s critics, the meaning is clear–the WMD intelligence was being faked to support the rationale for intervention.

This passage needs some clarification. Maybe Rycroft or Dearlove could elaborate; by “fixed around” did they mean that intelligence was being falsified or that intelligence and information were being gathered to support the policy? There is nothing wrong with the latter–it is the purpose of the intelligence community to provide the information decision-makers need, and the marshal their resources accordingly.

But if Dearlove meant the former, he should be called upon to substantiate his charge. It can be weighed against the exhaustive investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on prewar intelligence assessments in Iraq. The committee examined this very question, whether the White House had pressured the intelligence community to reach predetermined conclusions supporting the case for war. The investigation found no evidence that “administration officials attempted to coerce, influence or pressure analysts to change their judgments related to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities” or that “the Vice President’s visits to the Central Intelligence Agency were attempts to pressure analysts, were perceived as intended to pressure analysts by those who participated in the briefings on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs, or did pressure analysts to change their assessments.” One would think that the Senate investigation would have somewhat more weight than the secondhand impressions of a foreign intelligence officer, but if Mr. Dearlove is able to elaborate, one hopes he will.

The memo itself notes that the British assumed that Saddam had limited WMD capabilities–and the September 24, 2002, British white paper on the topic spelled out exactly what Whitehall believed to be the facts. Surely, this was not the result of pressure from the vice president or any other American officials.

I think the fact that the Downing Street Memo had once been classified has a lot to do with its current notoriety. People might suppose that a “secret” document must ipso facto be important. But not always, and not in equal measure. The section of the memo dealing with strategic planning, yes, that was worth keeping close hold on. But the speculations about the inner workings of the American government? Sounds like the same things one could have heard on any newscast. Looking at the document in context it is hard to see what the commotion is about. Most of what might be thought sensational has already been written about elsewhere, to little fanfare. The charge of intelligence fraud (if it is such a charge) has already been investigated and found baseless. And the allegations that the president had already decided to go to war and was thus deceiving the American people are personal opinions based on unsubstantiated impressions from unnamed sources.

You want a smoking gun? Check out the real thing. Makes the Downing Street Memo look rather anemic.

James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.

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