Mark Danner

The Iraq Pretext: Why the Memo Matters

The great value of the discussion recounted in the Downing Street to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear hierarchy of decision-making.

In response to The Secret Way to War (June 9, 2005)

To the Editors:

Mark Danner’s excellent article on the Bush administration’s path to war in Iraq [“The Secret Way to War,” NYR, June 9] missed a couple of important signposts.

On October 11, 2001, Knight Ridder reported that less than a month after the September 11 attacks senior Pentagon officials who wanted to expand the war against terrorism to Iraq had authorized a trip to Great Britain in September by former CIA director James Woolsey in search of evidence that Saddam Hussein had played a role in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Then, on February 13, 2002, nearly six months before the Downing Street memo was written, Knight Ridder reported that President Bush had decided to oust Saddam Hussein and had ordered the CIA, the Pentagon, and other agencies to devise a combination of military, diplomatic, and covert steps to achieve that goal. Six days later, former Senator Bob Graham of Florida reports in his book, he was astounded when General Tommy Franks told him during a visit to the US Central Command in Tampa that the administration was shifting resources away from the pursuit of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan to prepare for war in Iraq.

John Walcott
Washington Bureau Chief
Knight Ridder

Mark Danner replies:

John Walcott is proud of his bureau’s reporting, and he should be. As my colleague Michael Massing has written in these pages, during the lead-up to the Iraq war Knight Ridder reporters had an enviable and unexampled record of independence and success.[1] But Mr. Walcott’s statement that in my article “The Secret Way to War” I “missed a couple of important signposts” brings up an obvious question: Signposts on the way to what? What exactly does the Downing Street memo (which is simply an official account of a British security cabinet meeting in July 2002) and related documents that have since appeared, prove? And why has the American press in large part still resisted acknowledging the story the documents tell?

As I wrote in my article,

The great value of the discussion recounted in the memo…is to show, for the governments of both countries, a clear hierarchy of decision-making. By July 2002 at the latest, war had been decided on; the question at issue now was how to justify it—how to “fix,” as it were, what Blair will later call “the political context.” Specifically, though by this point in July the President had decided to go to war, he had not yet decided to go to the United Nations and demand inspectors; indeed, as “C” [the chief of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA] points out, those on the National Security Council—the senior security officials of the US government—”had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record.” This would later change, largely as a result of the political concerns of these very people gathered together at 10 Downing Street.

Those “political concerns” centered on the fact that, as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw points out, “the case [for going to war] was thin” since, as the Attorney General points out, “the desire for regime change [in Iraq] was not a legal base for military action.” In order to secure such a legal base, the British officials agree, the allies must contrive to win the approval of the United Nations Security Council, and the Foreign Secretary puts forward a way to do that: “We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors.” Prime Minister Tony Blair makes very clear the point of such an ultimatum: “It would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the inspectors.”

On February 13, 2002—five months before this British cabinet meeting, and thirteen months before the war began—the second of the articles Mr. Walcott mentions had appeared, under his and Walter P. Strobel’s byline and the stark headline “Bush Has Decided to Overthrow Hussein.” The article concludes this way:

Many nations…can be expected to question the legality of the United States unilaterally removing another country’s government, no matter how distasteful. But a senior State Department official, while unable to provide the precise legal authority for such a move, said, “It’s not hard to make the case that Iraq is a threat to international peace and security.”…

A diplomatic offensive aimed at generating international support for overthrowing Saddam’s regime is likely to precede any attack on Iraq….

The United States, perhaps with UN backing, is then expected to demand that Saddam readmit inspectors to root out Iraq’s chemical, biological, nuclear and missile programs….

If Baghdad refuses to readmit inspectors or if Saddam prevents them from carrying out their work, as he has in the past, Bush would have a pretext for action.

Thus the stratagem that the British would successfully urge on their American allies by late that summer was already under discussion within the State Department—five months before the Downing Street meeting in July 2002, and more than a year before the war began.

Again, what does all this prove? From the point of view of “the senior State Department official,” no doubt, such an admission leaked to a Knight Ridder reporter was an opening public salvo in the bureaucratic struggle that reached a climax that August, when President Bush finally accepted the argument of his secretary of state, and his British allies, and went “the United Nations route.” Just in the way that unnoticed but prophetic intelligence concealed in a wealth of “chatter” is outlined brightly by future events, this leak now seems like a clear prophetic disclosure about what was to come, having been confirmed by what did in fact happen. But the Downing Street memo makes clear that at the time the “senior State Department official” spoke to the Knight Ridder reporters the strategy had not yet been decided. The memo, moreover, is not an anonymous statement to reporters but a record of what Britain’s highest security officials actually said. It tells us much about how the decision was made, and shows decisively that, as I wrote in my article, “the idea of UN inspectors was introduced not as a means to avoid war, as President Bush repeatedly assured Americans, but as a means to make war possible.”

The Knight Ridder pieces bring up a larger issue. It is a source of some irony that one of the obstacles to gaining recognition for the Downing Street memo in the American press has been the largely unspoken notion among reporters and editors that the story the memo tells is “nothing new.” I say irony because we see in this an odd and familiar narrative from our current world of “frozen scandal”—so-called scandals, that is, in which we have revelation but not a true investigation or punishment: scandals we are forced to live with.[2] A story is told the first time but hardly acknowledged (as with the Knight Ridder piece), largely because the broader story the government is telling drowns it out. When the story is later confirmed by official documents, in this case the Downing Street memorandum, the documents are largely dismissed because they contain “nothing new.”

Part of this comes down to the question of what, in our current political and journalistic world, constitutes a “fact.” How do we actually prove the truth of a story, such as the rather obvious one that, as the Knight Ridder headline had it, “Bush has decided to overthrow Hussein” many months before the war and the congressional resolution authorizing it, despite the President’s protestations that “no decision had been made”? How would one prove the truth of the story that fully eight months before the invasion of Iraq, as the head of British intelligence reports to his prime minister and his cabinet colleagues upon his return from Washington in July 2002, “the facts and the intelligence were being fixed around the policy”? Michael Kinsley, in a recent article largely dismissing the Downing Street memo, remarks about this sentence:

Of course, if “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” rather than vice versa, that is pretty good evidence of Bush’s intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right. And we know now that was true and a half. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the war in Iraq. But C offered no specifics, or none that made it into the memo. Nor does the memo assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts.[3]

Consider for a moment this paragraph, which strikes me as a perfect little poem on our current political and journalistic condition. Kinsley accepts as “true and a half” that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”—that is, after all, “the Bush II governing style”—but rejects the notion that the Downing Street memo actually proves this, since, presumably, the head of British intelligence “does [not] assert that actual decision makers had told him they were fixing the facts.” Kinsley does not say from whom he thinks the chief of British intelligence, in reporting to his prime minister “on his recent talks in Washington,” might have derived that information, if not “actual decision makers.” (In fact, as the London Sunday Times reported, among the people he saw was his American counterpart, director of central intelligence George Tenet.) Kinsley does say that if the point, which he accepts as true—indeed, almost blithely dismissing all who might doubt it—could in fact be proved, it would be “pretty good evidence of Bush’s intentions, as well as a scandal in its own right.”

One might ask what would convince this writer, and many others, of the truth of what, apparently, they already know, and accept, and acknowledge that they know and accept. What could be said to establish “truth”—to “prove it”? Perhaps a true congressional investigation of the way the administration used intelligence before the war—an investigation of the kind that, as I wrote in my article, was promised by the Senate Intelligence Committee, then thoughtfully postponed until after theelection—though one might think the question might have had some relevance to Americans in deciding for whom to vote—then finally, and quietly, abandoned. Instead, the Senate committee produced a report that, while powerfully damning on its own terms, explicitly excluded the critical question of how administration officials made use of the intelligence that was supplied them.

Still, Kinsley’s column, and the cynical and impotent attitude it represents, suggests that such an investigation, if it occurred, might still not be adequate to make a publicly acceptable fact out of what everyone now knows and accepts. The column bears the perfect headline “No Smoking Gun,” which suggests that failing the discovery of a tape recording in which President Bush is quoted explicitly ordering then Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet that he should “fix the intelligence and facts around the policy,” many will never regard the case as proved— though all the while accepting, of course, and admitting that they accept, that this is indeed what happened. The so-called “rules of objective journalism” dovetail with the disciplined functioning of a one-party government to keep the political debate willfully opaque and stupid.

So: if the excellent Knight Ridder articles by Mr. Walcott and his colleagues do indeed represent “signposts,” then signposts on the way to what? American citizens find themselves on a very peculiar road, stumbling blindly through a dark wood. Having had before the war rather clear evidence that the Bush administration had decided to go to war even as it was claiming it was trying to avert war, we are now confronted with an escalating series of “disclosures” proving that the original story, despite the broad unwillingness to accept it, was in fact true.

Many in Congress, including many leading Democrats who voted to give the President the authority to go to war—fearing the political consequences of opposing him —and thus welcomed his soothing arguments that such a vote would enable him to avoid war rather than to undertake it, now find themselves in an especially difficult position, claiming, as Senator John Kerry did during the presidential campaign, that they were “misled” into supporting a war that they believed they were voting to help prevent. This argument is embarrassingly thin but it remains morally incriminating enough to go on confusing and corrupting a nascent public debate on Iraq that is sure to become more difficult and painful.

Whether or not the Downing Street memo could be called a “smoking gun,” it has long since become clear that the UN inspections policy that, given time, could in fact have prevented war—by revealing, as it eventually would have, that Saddam had no threatening stockpiles of “weapons of mass destruction”—was used by the administration as a pretext: a means to persuade the country to begin a war that need never have been fought. It was an exceedingly clever pretext, for every action preparing for war could by definition be construed to be an action intended to avert it—as necessary to convince Saddam that war was imminent. According to this rhetorical stratagem, the actions, whether prepar-ing to wage war or seeking to avert it, merge, become indistinguishable. Failing the emergence of a time-stamped recording of President Bush declaring, “I have today decided to go to war with Saddam and all this inspection stuff is rubbish,” we are unlikely to recover the kind of “smoking gun” that Kinsley and others seem to demand.

Failing that, the most reliable way to distinguish the true intentions of Bush and his officials is by looking at what they actually did, and the fact is that, despite the protestations of many in the United Nations and throughout the world, they refused to let the inspections run their course. What is more, the arguments of the President and others in his administration retrospectively justifying the war after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq— stressing that Saddam would always have been a threat because he could have “reconstituted” his weapons programs— make a mockery of the proposition that the administration would have been willing to leave him in power, even if the inspectors had been allowed sufficient time to prove before the war, as their colleagues did after it, that no weapons existed in Iraq.

We might believe that we are past such matters now. Alas, as Americans go on dying in Iraq and their fellow citizens grow ever more impatient with the war, the story of its beginning, clouded with propaganda and controversy as it is, will become more important, not less. Consider the strong warning put forward in a recently released British Cabinet document dated two days before the Downing Street memo (and eight months before the war), that “the military occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise.” On this point, as the British document prophetically observes, “US military plans are virtually silent.”[4] So too were America’s leaders, and we live with the consequences of that silence. As support for the war collapses, the cost will become clear: for most citizens, 1,700 American dead later—tens of thousands of Iraqi dead later—the war’s beginning remains as murky and indistinct as its ending.



[1] See Michael Massing, “Now They Tell Us,” The New York Review, February 26, 2004.

[2] See my essay, “What Are You Gong To Do With That?” The New York Review, June 23, 2005.

[3] The Washington Post, August 12, 2005.

[4] See “Cabinet Office Paper: Conditions for Military Action,” The Sunday Times, June 12, 2005;,,2089-1648758,00.html