Behind the Downing Street Memos

Everyone is talking about the Downing Street memos, and they are important – although not for the reasons generally assumed.

Naturally, we covered these on when they were first published, but now that the "mainstream" media is finally paying attention it behooves us to go over them with a fine-tooth comb, in an attempt to tease some meaning out of the daily slaughter on the evening news. The key paragraph in the first memo, and the one most cited, is this:

"C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. 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 mysterious "C" is none other than Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, Britain’s intelligence service, no doubt conferring with his American equivalent, then-CIA director George Tenet. The date – July 23, 2002 – is significant: if you’ll remember, at that time our lying president was telling us that war with Iraq would be a "last resort." Yeah, sure. Not that anybody really believed him, but it’s significant that he still felt it necessary to make the effort to deceive. Meanwhile, the War Party was plotting to pull a fast one, using every trick in the book to gin up a war with Iraq – a constant stream of wild stories presented in the guise of "intelligence" and planted in a compliant media, all positing "weapons of mass destruction" poised to hit American cities.

Bob Woodward revealed that the decision to go to war had already been made in his book, Plan of Attack, but the media doesn’t cover books. Leaked memos, however, are another matter: especially ones with "SECRET AND STRICTLY PERSONAL – UK EYES ONLY" emblazoned at the top, along with a further notation:

"This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents."

Well, yes, we genuinely do need to know why our young people are dying by the dozens every week, until now it’s over 1,700 and rising. And it isn’t sensitive anymore, now that the horse is out of the barn, so it’s OK for the public to see these previously secret documents: that’s why we’re reading them today and why they’re being covered in the "mainstream" media.

The "smoking gun," so to speak, is the admission that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." We knew that, too, but this raises an important question: who was fixing the intelligence? It’s time to start taking names.

The embarrassing revelations, however, do not stop there. A memo to British Cabinet members three days before a crucial meeting shows that the Brits were trying to manufacture a useful pretext for war and still remain within the bounds of international law:

"It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community. However, failing that (or an Iraqi attack) we would be most unlikely to achieve a legal base for military action by January 2003."

They didn’t want Saddam to let the inspectors in, and were hoping against hope that he would insist on the old-fashioned idea of national sovereignty – a non-starter, in their brave new world – so they could go in there guns blazing. Rather like a schoolyard bully who doesn’t really want the 98-lb. weakling in the schoolyard to give up his lunch money, because he’d much rather have the pleasure of beating the living heck out of his intended victim.

There was also a series of memos flying back and forth among the Brits that read like the missives of a quaint old aunt who hopes to accommodate the somewhat extravagant wishes of a favorite nephew, while still keeping his behavior within the bounds of a certain propriety: "A legal justification for invasion is needed," one memo [.pdf] worries. "Subject to Law Officers advice, none currently exists." Oh, but we’ll come up with something: just give us time. We need to take "a staged approach." London played the part of the patient but sorely taxed friend, forever reining in a rambunctious and rather spoiled young hooligan.

It’s charming that the Brits saw "moderating U.S. policy" as one of their objectives – "if necessary." In the end, however, it was the Brits who saw their own hesitancy moderated – by the Americans – to the point of nonexistence. Perhaps they realized this was inevitable, and that led to a certain amount of resentment: this comes out in the outright sarcasm that permeates this document. Its honesty is bracing: Ahmed Chalabi, the favorite son of the neoconservatives, is described as "a convicted fraudster, popular on Capitol Hill."

Birds of a feather, and all.

It’s also interesting that in surveying postwar options – the installation of an Anglo-American-backed "strongman," versus representative democracy – both scenarios assume Sunni domination. A Shia-led government is never even considered as an option, and for what British policymakers no doubt considered at the time to be obvious reasons: for this would mean – and does mean – handing over the country to the Iranians, who are even now cementing their control of the various Iraqi ministries – and the nascent security and intelligence apparatus, by merging it with the Shia party militias (which are trained and succored by Tehran).

Such a policy would seem to be madness, but it has a certain logic from the neocon point of view: by empowering Iran, they are creating yet another threat just over the horizon. This is a war story with a ready-made sequel – one that is already premiering as I write.

Another memo [.pdf] takes the tack that the Americans have to be watched over very carefully – for their own good, of course, and the well-being of the family: "By sharing Bush’s broad objective the Prime Minister can help shape how it is defined." Translation: go along with the boy, humor him, make him think he’s in charge, while you’re skillfully diverting him from making a perfect mess of things. You know how these Americans are. Sure, the Iraqis don’t really have WMD, or don’t seem to be making much of an effort to acquire them; however, "what has changed is not the pace of Saddam’s WMD programs, but our tolerance for them. This is not something we need to be defensive about." All the while, they were admitting their "intelligence" was "bad." So they were becoming increasingly intolerant of that which they knew next to nothing about – not even whether it had any real existence.

Oh, but there’s no need to get defensive about it: there is yet "more work to do," including a campaign to "sensitise" the public. "We are still left with the problem of bringing public opinion to accept the imminence of a threat from Iraq" – i.e., how are we going to get them to believe something that is clearly not true? The Brits dealt with that problem by essentially throwing it in the laps of the Americans: they clearly wanted no part of it. Blair and Bush, the memo averred, would need to have "a frank discussion" about just how to achieve that objective. Pass the ball to Washington, and let them go for a mid-court slam-dunk. The Blairites, for their part, refused to dirty their hands with it, and so it was left to such mysterious and ephemeral U.S. government agencies as the "Office of Special Plans" and other ad hoc neocon-run organizations. They cooked the intelligence and planted it with their favorite reporters and pundits, as well as giving it in the form of "talking points" to Bush, Cheney, and the gang, to repeat ad infinitum.

The memos as a whole treat Iraq’s alleged connection to al-Qaeda with utter disdain, dryly characterizing the American effort to make this "frankly unconvincing" case as "scrambling." A fourth memo [.pdf] says it is "not credible," and goes on to speculate how to undo the damage done by presidential speechwriter David Frum when he crafted the phrase "axis of evil" with which the president linked Iraq with Iran and North Korea. The problem was how to "de-link" them in the public mind, so as to be able to argue that Iraq represented "a unique and present danger."

David Frum, an obstacle to war: who woulda thought?

A fifth memo, relating a conversation between Britain’s ambassador to Washington, Christopher Meyer, and Paul Wolfowitz, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s chief deputy at the Pentagon – and, many would say, the chief architect of the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath – gets to the core of the issue, the dark mystery at the heart of why we have embarked on a seemingly endless and increasingly bloody war.

The attitude the ambassador took to the meeting was clearly a desire, even a certain puppyish eagerness, to comply with Washington’s wishes, and in this Blair’s poodle was reflecting the prime minister’s own poodlish demeanor – albeit with certain conditions not too conspicuously attached. We’ll go along with it, Meyer essentially said, but we need to be "clever" about it. "I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors," Meyer writes – the clearest expression yet of the self-consciousness of Anglo-American insincerity when it came to the alleged need for Iraq to submit to weapons inspections.

Nervous about the home front, the Brits wanted assurances that the Americans wouldn’t go barging in there like cowboys: the public had to be softened up first. Wolfowitz agreed, but Meyer noted that he had a "slightly different" focus from other administration figures. While Condi and Cheney were conjuring lurid images of nuclear fireballs blossoming over American cities, Wolfowitz was basically in favor of doing a repeat of the Clintonian strategy during the run-up to war with Serbia. You’ll remember that the Serbians were said to have murdered 100,000 – or maybe 50,000 – or maybe 10,000 Kosovars. It was never quite clear. It’s the old Belgian-babies-on-bayonets scam: dangle a few atrocities in front of peoples’ eyes and soon you’ll have them screaming for blood. "A lot of work" had been done on this during the reign of Bush I, said Wolfowitz. Meyer added: "Wolfowitz thought that this would go a long way to destroying any notion of moral equivalence between Iraq and Israel."

There is something awfully peculiar about the above quoted sentence, and that is the way it ends. The reader expects to hear the word "America," or "the allies," but instead we come face to face with the chief subject of Wolfowitz’s concern: Israel, whose interests frame and define the Wolfowitzian view of the region. Israel was and is the great unadmitted factor in all this. As far as Wolfowitz is concerned, the reason we went to war was not to seize and defang Saddam’s nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction," nor to sever his nonexistent links to al-Qaeda, but to secure Israel’s interests in the region. That’s why we’re in Iraq today, and why we may be in Syria, Lebanon, and/or Iran tomorrow.

Michael Kinsley and a few minor imitators are telling us that all of this is nothing new – that is, the part about the lack of evidence for WMD, the skepticism of the Brits, the complete lack of confidence in the case the administration was making at the time. So what else is new? If we think of the process by which the memos have come to generate headlines, however, we have to look at it as a learning process on the part of the public. If it took several dozen repetitions to get them to believe a lie, then it may take that many – and more – to show them the truth. And not just the truth about how they were lied to, either. Tim Cavanaugh may be right that they stopped caring about that a long time ago. However, when they find out who lied us into war, and why – when they discover that American girls and boys are dying and being horribly wounded in order to make life a little bit easier for the Israeli state, and specifically for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, I wonder if they’ll begin to get a little hot under the collar. Particularly as our Justice Department rounds up a coven of Israeli spies in the Pentagon, and charges Israel’s Washington lobbyists with espionage.

Yes, a good deal of this is "old news" – but the Israeli connection is new. And if, as there’s ample reason to believe, it can be shown that the Israelis fed us (via Chalabi and the Office of Special Plans) a stream of lies to rationalize a war to save their asses, the growing scandal that they were stealing our secrets blind and selling weapons to China all along may well provide the tipping point in the public’s attitude toward the war – and toward our "special relationship" with Israel.

The key, once again, is focusing, not on the lies themselves – most of us can repeat them in our sleep – but on who told them and the crimes they committed in the telling. When the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence looked into the intelligence-gathering that preceded the war, the Office of Special Plans and other obscure neocon-controlled governmental bodies were declared "off limits" to the first phase of the investigation – and then "Phase II" was indefinitely postponed.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), co-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, needs to get off his butt and get moving: If a foreign nation, namely Israel, was involved in an effort to lie us into war by feeding us false "intelligence" – and planting such intelligence via its agents in the U.S. government – then the American people have a right to know.

As I said on the eve of the invasion: "this war is treason." Once we find ourselves on the path to finding out that this is literally true, then I won’t feel vindicated. Only sick to my stomach – and mad as hell.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].