Controversy Continues Over “Downing Street” War Memos
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TERENCE SMITH: Behind that famous door, the residence of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, top British officials gathered in July 2002 to discuss a possible war in Iraq. But minutes of that discussion only surfaced on May 1 of this year in the heat of Blair’s reelection campaign. First published by the Sunday Times of London, it came to be known as the “Downing Street Memo.”
The war itself actually began March 20, 2003, but the memo suggested that the Bush administration was deciding on war nine months earlier. The memo said Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, concluded from his July 2002 talks in Washington: “Military action was now seen as inevitable; justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.” That “Bush wanted to remove Saddam” through military action, and that “intelligence and facts were being fixed” around the policy.
This past week, seven other classified memos came to light, some dating back to March 2002, detailing even earlier indications of the administration’s desire to oust Saddam and that military planning was well underway. This March 14 memo from Sir David Manning, Blair’s key foreign policy adviser, reported on a dinner with then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. It noted, “Condi’s enthusiasm for regime change is undimmed.” But the president wanted Blair’s advice before making political decisions to go to war.
The memos also appeared at odds with public statements by the president, vice president and other top officials that the final decision to go to war came only in March 2003. 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.
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.
TERENCE SMITH: President Bush responded at an afternoon news conference that same day.
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?”
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.”
MARGARET WARNER: So what do these memos from 2002 tell us about the timing of President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq? To assess that issue, we’re joined by two former CIA officials. Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years. He retired 15 years ago, and is now a member of the group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He appeared as a witness at today’s Democratic forum. And Reuel Gerecht was a CIA Middle East operations officer until the mid-’90s. He’s now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Welcome to you both.
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.
MARGARET WARNER: Reuel Gerecht, if you read this memo certainly looks like head of British intelligence had come to these very same conclusions, these conclusions.
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-Silverman 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.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that these are Dearlove’s conclusions, but that doesn’t prove that this was in fact the state of play in Washington.
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.
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 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 U.S. 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 U.N., but the U.N. 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 U.N. 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 U.N. inspectors to destroy about 90 of those el-Samoud missiles.
So the inspection regime was working. The U.S. 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.
So it’s very interesting that finally people are getting interested here and the Democrats who were confined to a basement room in the bottom of the Capitol today still went ahead, all manner of representatives showed up there, and you’ll see a lot of this on the press tonight.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask — including on this program. Reuel Gerecht, you’re also an intelligence professional; how do you read this sentence in the memo that Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, two sentences, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD, but the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy?
REUEL GERECHT: Well, one on the first part I would certainly hope that the president of the United States after 9/11 would want to remove Saddam Hussein because of the possibility that a rogue dictator who had a long history of developing weapons of mass destruction, who had a history of associating with terrorists, should in fact be removed; that we now live in a post-9/11 world.
MARGARET WARNER: And what is the second part?
REUEL GERECHT: On the second part, I mean that’s a question that should be put directly, I think, to the gentleman or have him explain it. I mean I say again, I mean if you have to take that one sentence and weigh it against the exhaustive treatment by the bipartisan commission of the Robb-Silverman report, I think really you have to go with the Robb-Silverman report and not the offhanded remark that you have here. It certainly bears further investigation and would be very good if that intelligence official would come forward and actually explain.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you about something else Mr. McGovern raised, which had to do with the exercise at the U. N., and there’s a sentence here which Jack Straw, the foreign secretary is saying that, you know, his weapons capability is less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. 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 U.N. and all those fronts, was that on the level?
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.
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.
MARGARET WARNER: Then let me ask you, Mr. McGovern about — this is now one more memo, we cited it in our setup piece — and this reports a dinner between David Manning who was then Blair’s national security advisor, and he’s now the ambassador here in Washington, who had dinner with Condoleezza Rice who was then national security advisor.
Quote, 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.
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.
MARGARET WARNER: You get, I’m sorry to say, about five minutes — five seconds to respond.
REUEL GERECHT: I would like to believe it’s true. 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.
MARGARET WARNER: On that I think we probably still have disagreement. Thank you both.
RAY McGOVERN: Thank you.
REUEL GERECHT: A pleasure.