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Seldom-Discussed Elephant Moves Into Public's View

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Yesterday's East Room meeting of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was worth a cool $1,000 to Steve Holland, Reuters' chief White House correspondent, if he cares to collect it.

Earlier in the day, Democrats.com, a group of left-wing activists, sent out an e-mail offering a "reward" to anyone who could get an answer from Bush about whether a recently leaked British government memo from 2002 was correct in saying the Bush administration had "fixed" the intelligence about Iraq's weapons to justify war.

The issue caused quite a fuss in Britain when the Times of London published the memo last month on the eve of Blair's reelection. Here at home, the memo provoked outrage from liberals but did not become a major news event -- until yesterday, when Holland, the third of four questioners, put it on the agenda.

"The so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action," Holland mused to both leaders. "Is this an accurate reflection of what happened?"

Blair, as he has done on a full range of issues over the past four years, leaped to Bush's defense. "Well, I can respond to that very easily," he said, before Bush could open his mouth. "No, the facts were not being fixed, in any shape or form at all."

Bush started out by suggesting that the memo wasn't credible because British media had "dropped it out in the middle of his [Blair's] race." Skipping any discussion of the intelligence, Bush said he had not settled on war from the start. "There's nothing farther from the truth," he asserted. "My conversations with the prime minister was, how can we do this peacefully?"

Holland, a consummate professional, wasn't trying to satisfy the wing nuts -- "good grief," he said when told later about the prize money -- and won't be collecting. But his query ended a slightly strange episode in the American media in which the potentially explosive report out of London had become a seldom acknowledged elephant in the room.

The Times report was intriguing: It showed that the head of British foreign intelligence told Blair seven months before the invasion of Iraq that Bush saw military action against Saddam Hussein as "inevitable" and that intelligence in Washington was "being fixed around the policy." In part, the memo never gained traction here because, unlike in Britain, it wasn't election season, and the war is not as unpopular here. In part, it's also because the notion that Bush was intent on military action in Iraq had been widely reported here before, in accounts from Paul O'Neill and Bob Woodward, among others.

The memo was also more newsworthy across the Atlantic because it reinforced the notion there that Blair has been acting as Bush's "poodle." While the Briton gave Bush crucial support on Iraq, Bush has gone against Blair in rejecting the Kyoto global warming treaty, imposing steel tariffs and declining to embrace Blair's more expansive African aid effort.

On Monday, London's Telegraph reported that "there are some in Downing Street who would like the prime minister to have what they describe as a 'Love Actually' moment." That refers to the 2003 film in which Hugh Grant, playing the British prime minister, tells off an American president, played by Billy Bob Thornton, at a news conference.

But, the Telegraph reported, Blair "is not about to behave in a way that could be characterized as the poodle biting back. 'In private, he gets very angry with Bush about these things but it's not his style to humiliate him in public,' one ally said."

Blair didn't even nibble at the president yesterday. Rather than let Bush take the bullet over the Downing Street memo -- the question was, after all, about U.S. war intentions -- he insisted on blocking the projectile himself. "No one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me," he testified on Bush's behalf. "And the fact is, we decided to go to the United Nations."

Rather than repay Blair for his generosity, Bush made clear he would not support Blair's plan to double international aid to Africa and said "our country is taking the lead in Africa."

At the end of the news conference, Blair called on a British journalist, who asked about Africa and climate change. Bush jumped in with a lengthy answer, then ended the session before Blair could put in a word. "Thank you for your question; good to see you all," he declared. Blair gamely took Bush's extended hand.

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