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posted May 17, 2005, updated 12:43 p.m.

Why has 'Downing Street memo' story been a 'dud' in US?

A mid-2002 British memo saying US was planning to 'fix' intelligence to fit plans to invade Iraq has not been big news.

There may have been a point at which the US news media would have been all over a story about a British official's report that the Bush administration appeared intent on invading Iraq long before it sought Congress' approval – and that it "fixed" intelligence to fit its intention.

But May 2005 is apparently way past that point.

Days before British Prime Minister Tony Blair secured a third term in the country's parliamentary election earlier this month, The Sunday Times published a " secret Downing Street memo."

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The document was written by British national security aide Matthew Rycroft based on notes he took during a July 2002 meeting of Mr. Blair and his advisers, including Richard Dearlove, the head of Britain's MI-6 intelligence service who had recently met with Bush administration officials.

Among other things, the memo said:

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 [National Security Council] had no patience with the UN route .... There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action. ...

It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.

The memo's authenticity was not disputed by Blair's office.

"But the potentially explosive revelation has proven to be something of a dud in the United States," reports the Chicago Tribune.

The White House has denied the premise of the memo, the American media have reacted slowly to it and the public generally seems indifferent to the issue or unwilling to rehash the bitter prewar debate over the reasons for the war. All of this has contributed to something less than a robust discussion of a memo that would seem to bolster the strongest assertions of the war's critics.
The Los Angeles Times reported last Thursday that the story "appears to have blown over quickly in Britain."
But in the United States, where the reports at first received scant attention, there has been growing indignation among critics of the Bush White House, who say the documents help prove that the leaders made a secret decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein nearly a year before launching their attack, shaped intelligence to that aim and never seriously intended to avert the war through diplomacy.
Democrats and other war critics have launched campaigns to get this story a wider hearing.

In a letter to President Bush released May 6, 89 Democratic members of Congress said the memo " raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of our own administration." This move failed to gain the sort of media attention that normally elicits a quick response from the administration, which did not comment on the memo until Monday.

Asked Monday about the memo's implication that Iraq intelligence was being "fixed", White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "The suggestion is just flat-out wrong."

In a piece published on the Political Gateway, a website which "tries to bring input from all sides of the political arena to allow free and open discourse on a range of subjects," columnist Bud Beck writes that the British memo story " isn't news by any stretch of the imagination."

This is not the Watergate burglary and it is not a fabricated Gulf of Tonkin incident. It is nothing new, just a new version of something that is old - so old it has become all but too boring.

The critics of the war, all of them Democrats, have accused Bush and his top aides of misusing what has since been shown as limited intelligence in the prewar period. The notes of the meeting between Dearlove and Blair now prove it. So what? The same critics have been unsuccessful in getting an investigation into the misuse of the intelligence and as long as they are in the minority they never will. What are they expecting to happen here that didn't happen in Britain?

In Sunday's Washington Post the paper's ombudsman Michael Getler wrote that his e-mail inbox was " inundated last week by write-in campaigns provoked by two self-described media watchdog organizations, both on the liberal side of things."

Mr. Getler wrote that he received over 1,000 e-mails attacking the Post for not following up on the Sunday Times disclosure the memo. Getler wrote that he was "amazed that The Post took almost two weeks to follow up on the Times report."

The key line in the leaked memo, in my view, is the assessment by British intelligence, after a visit to Washington, that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." That kind of assertion has been made by critics and commentators, but it has not been included in official post-invasion assessments here about how the country went to war under what turned out to be false premises about weapons of mass destruction and other matters. Investigating that assessment, coming from the key US ally in the war, certainly seems journalistically mandatory. Indeed, while official US commissions and committees have documented just how bad US intelligence was, they have stopped short of assessing what happened to that intelligence after it was prepared.

Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas lamented last week that Britons and Americans – in her judgment – no longer care about the credibility and accountability of their leaders.

I am not surprised at the duplicity. But I am astonished at the acceptance of this deception by voters in the United States and the United Kingdom.

I've seen two US presidents go down the drain – Lyndon B. Johnson on Vietnam and Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal – because they were no longer believed. But times change – and I guess our values do, too.

But Thomas Patrick Carroll, a former officer in the Clandestine Service of the CIA, suggests in the conservative Front Page Magazine that those dwelling on the memo may be missing the forest for the trees.

It is simply inexcusable for opinion makers and public intellectuals (e.g., those who made such a fuss about the 'revelations' in the Downing Street memo) not to grasp the strategic imperatives behind what we are doing in Iraq and elsewhere. It's certainly okay to disagree with our strategy, but for supposedly sophisticated commentators to miss the entire point and continue raving about WMD and UN sanctions is simply beyond the pale.

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• Feedback appreciated. E-mail Matthew Clark.

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