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June 12, 2005
Debunking The Downing Street Memo

I don't often agree with Michael Kinsley, but I enjoy reading his columns; he has fun with language and brings an insouciant tone to almost every article. Today, however, he scores on the ridiculous nature of the Downing Street Memo that has the Left all atwitter. After noting that Air America fans have accused him of personally covering up for the Bush White House -- a hilarious assertion for anyone who's read Kinsley -- by failing to comment on the DSM, Kinsley explains why it's not news:

It's a report on a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and some aides on July 23, 2002. The key passage summarizes "recent talks in Washington" by the head of British foreign intelligence (identified, John le Carre-style, as "C"). C reported that "military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

C's focus on the dog that didn't bark the lack of discussion about the aftermath of war was smart and prescient. But even on its face, the memo is not proof that Bush had decided on war. It states that war is "now seen as inevitable" by "Washington." That is, people other than Bush had concluded, based on observation, that he was determined to go to war. There is no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that he had actually declared this intention. Even if "Washington" meant administration decision-makers, rather than the usual freelance chatterboxes, C was only saying that these people believed that war was how events would play out.

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 this was true. Fixing intelligence and facts to fit a desired policy is the Bush II governing style, especially concerning the Iraq war. But C offered no specifics, or none that made it into the memo. Nor does the memo assert that actual decision-makers told him they were fixing the facts. Although the prose is not exactly crystalline, it seems to be saying only that "Washington" had reached that conclusion.

I'd say that Kinsley has been proven wrong about "know[ing] now that this was true," as the Senate Intelligence Committee has already thoroughly investigated this and reported that it is false, in a bipartisan report. No analyst claimed to have reached or changed conclusions based on any political pressure. In fact, most of the analysis presented by the Bush administration had been performed during the previous administration, since the CIA lost all of its humint sources in 1998, as the report indicates.

The timing of the memo also reveals its irrelevancy. Supposedly the memo claimed that war was imminent. However, it took almost eight months after that, and two attempts at the UN to issue an ultimatum to Saddam, before we actually initiated military action. It had been Bush's position that military action was justified just by Saddam's firing on jets in the no-fly zone, an obvious and clear violation of the cease-fire that stopped the Coalition from marching on Baghdad in 1991. It was the British who wanted new legal justification for military action, not the US, and against the advice of both America and France, it was the British who wanted to go back for a second resolution in 2003 rather than just rely on 1441. In short, Washington didn't have much need to "fix" intelligence at all.

Beyond that, the memo itself says nothing at all. It mentions no names and provides no quotes. The supposed "smoking gun" of the memo, the "fixing" statement, isn't even attributed to another person. It actually reads like the opinion of the memo's author -- and as Kinsley points out, that opinion could hardly be considered unique, even at the time the memo was written. The analysis matches the Labour position at the time, which wanted to stick with sanctions on Iraq that supposedly kept Saddam in his box, a contention that we know now (through Oil-For-Food evidence seized after the invasion) had not been true for years.

Simply put, the DSM provides nothing new -- no evidence, no perspective, not even decent hearsay. It's the opinion of an anonymous analyst who traveled to Washington and spoke with unknown sources, and then came back and wrote a memo supporting what the analyst thought was the party line. It provides no support for what its fans claim to be its central assertion. The DSM is a development only Air America could love.

And yet, the Exempt Media has decided to twist itself into knots about their failure to cover the memo. One would think that disregarding it showed some improvement in editorial judgment, considering the lessons of Newsweek and the Killian-memo frauds. Thankfully, Kinsley is honest enough to point out to the moonbats that they have chosen their Holy Grail ... poorly.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 12, 2005 9:46 AM

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