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The Star Tribune May 13, 2005

U.S. anger over war memo is slight

By Sharon Schmickle

Liberal web logs have buzzed for days with a new allegation that the U.S. government "fixed" intelligence and facts to justify the Iraq war.

The report in a London newspaper of a top-secret British document has prompted some outrage on this side of the Atlantic. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota is one of 88 House Democrats who have formally requested an explanation from the White House, saying the report "raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war."

For the most part, though, the report stands as a fresh example of today's fractured political discourse in which one person's smoking gun is another's cryptic smoke signal. Among their other frustrations, liberals are fuming because the U.S. news media have barely noted the news that set off an uproar in Europe.

The underlying reality is that the United States has moved beyond the debate over the reasons for invading Iraq, said Daniel Hofrenning, a political scientist at St. Olaf College in Northfield. Most Americans are focused on seeking positive outcomes from the war, not reason to blame the Bush administration for starting it.

"It doesn't mean President Bush gets a free pass, but the evidentiary standard has to be pretty high before he suffers from something like this," Hofrenning said. "At the end of the day, citizens are going to judge him on whether a viable democracy is established in Iraq."

A Cold War-era spy story

The Bush administration has not responded to the Democrats' inquiry, said Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr., who initiated the request. The White House and the National Security Council also did not respond to the Star Tribune's requests for comment.

Although this latest divisive war news raced worldwide via the modern blogosphere, it surfaced like a Cold War-era spy story replete with code names and spilled secrets.

On May 1, the Sunday Times of London published what it said was a secret summary of a meeting Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers held in his Downing Street offices on July 23, 2002, eight months before the invasion of Iraq.

Labeled "extremely sensitive," the memo says Blair and others were briefed by "C," (standard code for the head of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service who, at the time, was Sir Richard Dearlove). C had just returned from Washington, D.C., and the memo recapped his assessment: "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD (weapons of mass destruction). But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. ... There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw added: "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 neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

Confirming the classified memo's authenticity would be difficult, said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, which specializes in screening and compiling military and intelligence information. It is reasonable, though, to assume it is authentic, he said, because Blair's government has not challenged it as it has circulated widely for nearly two weeks.

By a different measure, the report jibes with other information, such as the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, said Tom Maertens, a former national security official now living in Minnesota. It also fits assertions by Paul O'Neill, former U.S. Treasury Secretary, and Richard Clarke, a former U.S. National Security Council official.

"When you put everything together, there is no outlier, nothing that says these findings are untrue," Maertens said. "So you've got a lot of evidence in one direction and nothing that really refutes it."

Without denying the substance of the report, Blair said in a recent television interview, "subsequent to that meeting we went the United Nations route," the New York Times reported. Bush and Blair pushed for a Nov. 2002 U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Iraq to submit to inspections and destroy certain weapons. After efforts to secure a more forceful resolution failed in 2003, their governments led the invasion without it.

Little uproar in U.S.

It is not surprising, Pike said, that the new report has drawn little attention in the United States, where Bush was reelected even while polling found that half the electorate believed Bush either lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence to justify going to war.

"I didn't think anybody felt there was a need for more smoking guns," Pike said. "Didn't we already know that?"

The news was explosive in Britain, he said, because, coming just before last week's national election, it spoke to the question of "whether Mr. Blair was somebody whose words you could trust." Blair won reelection, but many observers cite it as one reason his party lost ground in the government.

U.S. critics of the Iraq war hailed this latest development as the proof they had been seeking that White House officials deliberately misled the nation.

Many a blogger pointed to the record to highlight Bush's pledges during the summer of 2002 that no decision had been taken to attack Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that Iraq possessed mobile biological weapons laboratories and that high-ranking Al-Qaida fighters had taken refuge in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney told a veterans' group, "There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. ... There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

Bush acknowledged in his campaign last year that the justification given for attacking Iraq had been inaccurate. He blamed flawed intelligence reports, and at least two investigations have uncovered serious problems with the information the CIA and other agencies gave to the White House.

Conyers isn't convinced, though, that Bush and his closest advisers had no hand in crafting the flawed justification. If the British report is true, he said, it raises important new questions such as whether Bush misled Congress while seeking authorization for war. "Remember that President Bush kept saying that war would be his last resort," said Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

Conyers said he is compelled to keep digging because thousands of Americans and Iraqis are dying in the war and it is costing hundreds of billions of dollars. He said he may organize a fact-finding delegation to London.

 


Copyright 2005, Star Tribune