Deep Throat of Downing Street

By Jefferson Morley Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 14, 2005 10:18 AM

Deep Throat now has an English accent.

Reporter Michael Smith of the Sunday Times of London scored an international scoop this weekend with a story about a sensational Iraq war document provided by an anonymous high-level official source who, like W. Mark Felt of Watergate fame, seems to have taken up a mission of helping an investigative reporter probe allegations of misconduct and cover-up.

The document, a British government briefing paper from July 21, 2002, informed Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet ministers eight months before the invasion of Iraq that Blair had already committed Britain to supporting an American-led attack and that "they had no choice but to find a way of making it legal."

The eight-page document labeled "PERSONAL SECRET UK EYES ONLY," whose authenticity has been confirmed by British government sources, also served as the basis of a Page 1 story in the Sunday Washington Post. Staff writer Walter Pincus emphasized a different passage in the document, which said "the U.S. military was not preparing adequately for what the British memo predicted would be a " protracted and costly" postwar occupation of Iraq.

The Sunday Times story made headlines from Australia to China to Pakistan.  Like the now-famous Downing Street Memo, published by the Sunday Times on May 1, the revelation raises the intriguing question of who is risking jail time by leaking top-secret documents to Smith. Just as students of the Watergate scandal pondered for years the identity of the high-level source who guided Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, students of the Iraq war will wonder about the person (or persons) behind The Sunday Times's reports.

The most plausible candidate(s) come from the ranks of current or former senior British government officials. In the Sunday Times' online text of the briefing paper (entitled "Iraq: Conditions for Military Action" ) the London paper says it omitted one page "in order to protect the identity of its source." That suggests that the source's name appears in or could be inferred from the full document.

The source (or sources) would also seem to be opposed to Prime Minister Blair's support of U.S. policy toward Iraq in the summer of 2002. The leak of the document gives unprecedented publicity to the arguments made by skeptics of U.S. policy in Blair's inner circle. The documents openly question the use of intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the legal basis for the decision to go to war.

As Smith wrote, "The document said the only way the allies could justify military action was to place Saddam Hussein in a position where he ignored or rejected a United Nations ultimatum ordering him to co-operate with the weapons inspectors. But it warned this would be difficult.

"'It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject,' the document says. But if he accepted it and did not attack the allies, they would be 'most unlikely' to obtain the legal justification they needed."

The source may very well be bothered by the seeming contradictions of public statements and private conversations. The Sunday Times concludes that the new document also calls into question the credibility of the American president and British prime minister.

"The suggestions that the allies use the UN to justify war contradicts claims by Blair and Bush, repeated during their Washington summit last week, that they turned to the UN in order to avoid having to go to war," Smith wrote. Perhaps the person who provided the documents is concerned about the world body's credibility and disagrees with the Bush administration's decision not to stick it out in the Security Council for a second resolution.

One possibility is that the source(s) worked or works in the British Foreign Office, the English equivalent of the U.S. State Department. Last fall, when Smith worked for the Daily Telegraph, another center-right London daily, he scooped all his Fleet Street rivals with a story headlined "Secret papers show Blair was warned of Iraq chaos."

The story, based on a series of Foreign Office documents from early 2002, show that Blair "was warned a year before invading Iraq that a stable post-war government would be impossible without keeping large numbers of troops there for 'many years.'"

At that time Smith reported favorably on "the grave reservations expressed by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, over the consequences of a second Gulf war, and how prescient his Foreign Office officials were in predicting the ensuing chaos."

Straw and other top Foreign Office officials supported Bush's idea of using military force to disarm Saddam Hussein's regime. But they believed that an international legal consensus for war was necessary to create a stable, democratic Iraq after Hussein was gone.

Another Smith story from last September quoted a memo to Blair from British diplomat David Manning saying, "I think there is a real risk that the Administration underestimates the difficulties [of attacking Iraq]. They may agree that the failure isn't an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it.

In that article Smith hinted at one possible source for his story. He noted that "the highly confidential papers represent one of the most serious leaks Downing Street has ever had to confront - both because of the extremely restricted nature of their circulation and the embarrassment they may cause senior U.S. figures named in the memos."

Smith said "speculation" about the source of the his report was focusing on the Butler Committee which investigated British intelligence agencies erroneous conclusion that Hussein's regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. The Committee, he noted, "was given thousands of confidential documents detailing the run-up to war."

But the very fact that Smith -- who of course knows the truth -- would label such thinking as "speculation" suggests that his source was not on the Butler Committee.

A story in The Independent last month pointed to a more plausible candidate for the British Deep Throat. Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the United States, is now writing his memoirs for publication later this year, according to the liberal London daily.

"The diplomat was present when Mr. Blair met George Bush in the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in March 2002 and played a key role in the run-up to the war," the story noted.

Meyer would have had access to top secret memoranda. Documents previously leaked to Smith show that Meyer was a critic of Bush administration policy on Iraq. And friends of the former diplomat were quoted as saying his book was "likely to make uncomfortable reading for Mr. Blair." And, probably for President Bush too.

As U.S. media attention on the Downing Street Memo continues to grow, it is safe to say that we have probably not heard the last from the British Deep Throat.

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