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Downing Street memo proves nothing
Scripps Howard News Service


June 16, 2005

Repeatedly, those contending that President Bush lied us into the war in Iraq have had to face contrary evidence, stacks and stacks of it, and how have they handled this refutation of their fantasies? By ignoring it.

But give them something all but irrelevant to the argument, some itsy, bitsy thing that they can misinterpret as demonstrating the rightness of their view, and notice how some of them behave. Why, they say, the final proof is here at last.

I speak of the so-called Downing Street memo, the disclosed minutes of a meeting in 2002 between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and others in his government on the subject of a possible war in Iraq, then still eight months in the distance.

To anti-Bush critics such as Mark Danner, a magazine journalist and college professor writing in The New York Review of Books, the document is one more "revelation" in the weapons-of-mass-destruction "scandal" that ought to lead to judicial proceedings against top officials, to sentences handed down against them, and to punishment.

He talks in an article in another edition of the magazine about the memo "establishing" a number of points, when in fact it establishes absolutely nothing. In summing up observations by the head of British foreign intelligence, for instance, the document does not cite any specific sources and is more than a little vague.

The intelligence official, just returned from Washington, is paraphrased as saying that "military action was now seen as inevitable" and that Bush wanted Saddam Hussein's removal. Danner believes this means Bush "had decided to invade and occupy Iraq" months before the start of the war, and that evil resides in the fact. But as columnist Michael Kinsley has noted, the document contains "no claim of even fourth-hand knowledge that (Bush) had actually declared the intention."

It is quite possible, of course, that even at that stage, Bush had concluded that a war might well be necessary, and for good reason. Saddam was hostile to the United States, had maintained associations with terrorists, was reckless, was the murderer of tens of thousands of people and, as all the best intelligence agencies in the world reported, had weapons of mass destruction on hand. After 9/11, the height of irresponsibility would have been to think that the long-stated U.S. policy of getting this man out of power should merit no more than a shrug of the shoulders.

What's ludicrous is the position of some Bush critics that the administration somehow fabricated the intelligence reports on weapons, or outright lied about them. That's conspiracy theorizing of fanatical reach. A muddy line in the Downing Street memo has been taken to suggest the administration was contriving the case for war, but even if it was clear that the line meant that - and it isn't - the memo would hardly override the certainty that the bulk of the information getting to Bush was to the effect that the weapons existed.

While we now know that this information was faulty and that there were some concerns expressed about it within the intelligence community, it wasn't just the intelligence reports that the administration had to go on. The United States gave Saddam a chance to prove the intelligence wrong. All he had to do was cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors, and he would have been off the hook. For some reason that is known only to him, he didn't, and the signal was that he still had something to hide, that all those intelligence reports were on target.

Although no weapons of mass destruction have been found, by the way, investigators have discovered that Saddam maintained programs that could have manufactured biological and chemical weapons quickly, that he had plans to reconstitute his nuclear-weapons program and that he was busily bribing officials in such places as France, Russia and China so that he could get out from under inhibiting sanctions.

There are solid arguments against this war, and I respect those who make them, but there is also an extreme element that seems to have dominated much of the anti-war rhetoric - one of its illogical suppositions being that Bush would have told a lie that was sure to be found out.

In the end, such rhetoric does little service to either the anti-war cause or the reasoned discourse on which democracy depends.


Jay Ambrose, former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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