Monday, May 23, 2005

A Memo And Two Catechisms

We’ve all seen enough CSI to know that you can’t ignore a smoking gun. But the media has so far pretty much ignored the so-called Downing Street memo, which implicated the Bush administration in falsifying intelligence in connection with the plan for war in Iraq. Let’s try to understand why.

On the left, it’s part of the catechism now that President Bush and his administration lied about the reasons for going to war against Iraq in 2003, and that they “cooked” the intelligence used to inflate the Iraqi threat. The over-baked intelligence was then used, wittingly, to justify claims that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program, vast stockpiles of chemical and biological arms, SCUD missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver them, and, of course, ties to Al Qaeda that implicated Saddam Hussein in the events of 9/11.

On the right, the catechism says the opposite: that the Bush administration went to war in good faith, that U.S. intelligence functioned without political pressure to come up with its way-off-the-mark conclusions, and that not only did the weapons exist but that we might still find them if we keep looking—in Syria, perhaps?

Only one of these catechisms has the imprimatur of truth—which is why, 26 months after the war with Iraq began, it seems more important than ever to get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, just as the United States has given up looking for Iraqi WMD, official Washington and the media have given up trying to see which one of these catechisms is phony. The proof is the utterly blasé reaction to what seems to be a true “smoking gun”: the so-called Downing Street memo, based on verbatim U.S.-British talks in 2002, in which the British calmly reported that the United States had already decided to make war on Iraq and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

You’d think that such an important piece of evidence—which emerged in the context of the recent British elections—would explode like a thunderclap here. Yet it took 17 days, from the publication on May 1 in the London Sunday Times , before the existence of the memo was mentioned on the front page of an American newspaper—the Chicago Tribune. A few other papers, including The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, have buried stories on the inside about it—and the Post’s ombudsman provided a too-little, too-late criticism of his paper’s less-than-excited (and less-than-timely) coverage of the memo. And the paper of record, The New York Times , has mostly ignored it, giving it short shrift on May 20. That story, by Douglas Jehl, focused on the memo’s implication that Bush had decided to go to war by early in 2002, but it nearly skipped over the most explosive part of the story—namely, that the intelligence on Iraq was being rigged.

What accounts for the media’s refusal to hammer away at this story, to demand that Bush administration officials explain it, to dig deep into much more detailed British accounts surrounding it and to get British officials to comment, to ask Pentagon and CIA officials to explain it, and to put it in context? (In this case, the context is that in early 2002, the Bush administration was well on the way toward assembling a secretive team inside the Pentagon, supervised by outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, to cherry-pick facts and rumors that were used to promote war.)



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