By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 7, 2005 9:18 AM
More than a month after its publication, the so-called Downing Street Memo remains among the top 10 most viewed articles on The Times of London site.
It's not hard to see why this remarkable document, published in The Times on May 1 (and reported in this column on May 3), continues to attract reader interest around the world, especially with British Prime Minister Tony Blair visiting Washington Tuesday.
The July 2002 memo, labeled "SECRET AND STRICTLY PERSONAL - UK EYES ONLY," reports the views of "C," code name for Richard Dearlove, the chief of British intelligence. Dearlove had just retuned from a visit with Bush administration officials eight months before the war in Iraq began.
"Military action was now seen as inevitable," Dearlove told Blair and his senior defense policy advisers. "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."
A separate secret briefing paper for the meeting said Britain and the United States had to "create" conditions to justify a war.
The story attracted some news coverage in the United States, but not much. Last month, the Chicago Tribune concluded that "the Downing Street memo story has proven to be something of a dud in the United States.
"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," wrote reporters Stephen J. Hedges and Mark Silva.
Still the story won't go away, thanks to the attention it gets on the Internet.
"I think it's a . . . profoundly important document that raises stunning issues here at home," Sen. John Kerry told a Massachusetts audience last week. "And it's amazing to me the way it escaped major media discussion. It's not being missed on the Internet, I can tell you that."
Kerry promised to raise the issue when he returned to Washington this week.
On Sunday, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert asked Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman about the memo. Mehlman said "that report has been discredited by everyone else who's looked at it since then."
When Russert noted that the authenticity of the report has not been discredited, Mehlman said "I believe that the findings of the report, the fact that the intelligence was somehow fixed have been totally discredited by everyone who's looked at it."
Mehlman referred specifically to the Senate Intelligence Committee's July 2004 report on pre-war assessments of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction which concluded that the Bush administration's findings were "overstated" and "not supported by the underlying intelligence reporting." The report attributed the mistakes to "group think" in the intelligence community, not to pressure from the administration officials.
The Post's Walter Pincus reported on the memo in a May 13 story, noting that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) had written a letter to President Bush, signed by 88 congressional Democrats, demanding an explanation.
A week later, The Times of London reported on the Conyers letter and quoted the Michigan congressman as saying, "I deplore the fact that our media have been so reticent on the question of whether there was a secret planning of a war for which neither the Congress nor the American people had given permission."
"We have The Sunday Times to thank for this very important activity. It reminds me of Watergate, which started off as a tiny little incident reported in The Washington Post. I think that the interest of many citizens is picking up," Conyers said.
So is journalistic interest. Over the weekend, Charles Hanley, a special correspondent for the Associated Press, linked The Times's Downing Street memo to U.N. Ambassador nominee John Bolton's effort to get a U.N. weapons inspector fired.
"Bolton flew to Europe in 2002 to confront the head of a global arms-control agency and demand he resign, then orchestrated the firing of the unwilling diplomat in a move a U.N. tribunal has since judged unlawful, according to officials involved, " Hanley said in a story published this weekend by The Guardian in London and carried by Canadian TV.
The dismissal, Hanley says, was part of the Bush administration effort to control intelligence findings on Iraq.
Jose Bustani, the head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), "had to go" according to one of Bolton's aides, because he was trying to send chemical weapons inspectors to Baghdad. The course of action favored by Bustani might "have helped defuse the crisis over alleged Iraqi weapons and undermined a U.S. rationale for war," Hanley wrote.
Bustani was relieved of his position in April 2002 at an OPCW meeting attended by only one third of the group's member nations, according to the AP report.
"The Iraq connection to the OPCW affair comes as fresh evidence surfaces that the Bush administration was intent from early on to pursue military and not diplomatic action against Saddam Hussein's regime," Hanley wrote. He cited the Times's original Downing Street memo story, which reported that Blair told Bush that Britain would support a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq at a meeting in Crawford, Tex., in mid-April 2002.
"Two weeks later, Bustani was ousted, with British help," Hanley wrote.
Far from being a dud, the Downing Street Memo may generate more stories to come.
Sehrish Shaban and Mary Specht provided research for this column.