My personal musings about anything that gets on my radar screen--heavily dominated by politics.


On The "Downing Street Memo"

I keep hearing a smattering of chatter about this document, some on the left calling it the "smoking gun" that proves that the administration fixed the intelligence around the preconceived notion that going to war in Iraq was the best course of action. So I decided to take a crack at the memo and see just what it contains. The memo itself can be seen here.

First of all, be aware that the "memo" is the minutes of a meeting held by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, with several top officials of his cabinet. As such, it is one person's distillation of the conversation of several persons, limited by that person's ability to remember, to transcribe, and to impartially reflect what was said in the room.

Who, you might ask, is this "one person"? Turns out it is, according to the Times, one Matthew Rycroft, a "Downing Street foreign policy aide." What diplomatic or intelligence rank does this "aide" hold? That is never stated, nor is it ever explicated why Rycroft is in this meeting or is taking the minutes. Is it possible that a "foreign policy aide" is a nice title for a secretary? Who knows? But it is clear that Rycroft did not contribute to this meeting, and the original adressee of the memo is David Manning, who at the time was a foreign policy advisor to the Prime Minister.

And when did this meeting happen? July 23, 2002. Keep this in mind.

Okay, enough of the preliminaries. What does the memo say? In short,

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.

First of all, I have no idea who "C" is. Is this like the code name of a James Bond character, like "Q" or "M"? In the cc: line of the memo is a simple entry "C", so I assume this is somebody everybody within the government knows. A quick look through a couple UK websites didn't illuminate the identity of this person, and I don't have the patience to go through it in any more detail. But I digress . . .

--The point is, without knowing who "C" is, we have no way of assessing the accuracy of the information he/she presented to the meeting.

--"Recent talks in Washington" could have been with senior administration officials, or it could have been with a third-tier functionary at the State Department.

--Likewise, a "perceptible shift in attitude" may be the assessment, by "C" of the mood of the people he was talking to. It does not, however, present any factual data to back up his claim regarding the inevitability of war.

--"Bush wanted to remove Saddam . . ." Yes; and so did President Clinton, persuant to the 1998 Legislative Declaration, signed into law by the then-President, declaring the need for regime change in Iraq.

--"But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy" Which is a pretty neat trick, since that would involve ex post facto alteration of years worth of U.S. intel, not to mention British, French, German and U.N. intel, all of which painted a picture of an Iraq in possession of WMD. And besides which, this still provides absolutely ZERO factual evidence of said "fix."

--"The NSC had no patience. . .and little enthusiasm. . ." Again, according to whom? Is this based on high-level discussions with the top-tier personnel at the NSC, or is this the assessment of the "mood" of the place? "C" cites no immediate contact person, cites no factual evidence, cites no specific occassion. In fact, presents no evidence at all to back up his assessment.

In short, what the Downing Street Memo is nothing more than one person's view of the contents of a meeting at which an unnamed person cited unnamed contacts and vague conversations of which he/she summarized according to his or her own perceptions. It is the same thing as if I wrote down the "minutes" of a conversation I had with my brother, the Naval Aviator, and several of his friends, and then tried to submit it into a legal proceeding as evidence of the real policy of the Pentagon. No specific source, lots of opinion, and all based on, at best, third-person accounts.

THAT is why this memo has gotten so little play in the US. Because it is meaningless.

By the way, note that the date is some eight months before the invasion--an invasion whose most eloquent advocate was Tony Blair. If this were really reflective of UK policy or thinking, wouldn't that 8 month lull have been enough for Blair and Straw et al. to shift the public record to a more "accurate" version? At the very least, wouldn't Blair have moderated his rhetoric to reflect the opinion of "C"?

And, one more thing: how trustworthy can we find a document that has at the top of it "This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents."? One has to wonder when super-sensitive documents get leaked whether they are actually super-sensitive, or just planted to act thusly.

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