When the Levee Breaks

Our fingers are crossed on the Downing Street memo story. Leaks are appearing in the media dam.

Today on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday, Daniel Schorr reported the story. The full text, which I transcribed, follows. The audio is here.
This must rank as the undercovered story of the year. Secret documents leaked to the British Press indicating that President Bush was set on invading Iraq at least as early as July, 2002. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has denounced this as "flat-out wrong," and said the invasion decision was made only after Iraq refused to comply with international obligations. He did not, however, deny the existence of the British documents, which he said he had not seen.

According to one memo, which has not been disavowed by the British government, Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, Britain's intelligence service, visited Washington in July, 2002, to ascertain American intentions. A memo, dated July 23, summarized a meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top security advisers.

The memo quoted Dearlove as reporting what he had learned from American officials, who were not named. His report said, "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 Weapons of Mass Destruction. But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy," he said. This was at a time when the White House was saying, "There are no plans to attack Iraq on the President's desk."


Another briefing paper for the Downing Street meeting referred back to the Prime Minister's visit with President Bush the previous April in Crawford, Texas. Blair was quoted as having told the President then, "The UK would support military action to bring about regime change." This, although a British legal memo said, "Regime change, per se, is not a proper basis for military action under international law."

These memos, first reported in the London Sunday Times on May 1, created a great stir in Britain, perhaps because they appear to support attacks on the Prime Minister as a lapdog for President Bush at the height of the British election campaign. In the United States, perhaps because there had been so many stories suggesting a cynical White House decision, there was much less reaction. The New York Times did not get around to reporting it until last week, and on an inside page—apparently, no big deal.
This story has now jumped from print to radio--and a big radio show at that, with national reach and a listenership almost evenly divided between political parties (Air America excepted because it's not a news organization).

As for TV, according to Media Matters, CNN.com covered it, and CNN itself mentioned it on its blogger-despised show "Inside the Blogs." Three days after Media Matters called them on it (but maybe there's no connection), the following brief segment appeared on CNN:
A recent British newspaper report is reviving a long-running debate right here in the United States. It suggests that the Bush administration may have manipulated intelligence information to bolster the case for going to war in Iraq.

Our Brian Todd has been looking into this story. He's joining us now live in Washington -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the report came at a very challenging time for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and it has put him and his closest global ally on the defensive.


TODD (voice-over): A British document made public just before this month's elections leads to more pointed questions about the rationale for the Iraq war.

The memo, leaked to the "Times of London" newspaper, details the minutes of a meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his security team in July of 2002, before the Bush administration began making its public case for war against Saddam Hussein.

The notes refer to a British official's consultations in Washington that summer. Quote, "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 the facts were being fixed around the policy." Later the minutes say, quote, "The case was thin."

Contacted by CNN, an official in Blair's office would not confirm the contents of the notes one way or another.

CNN asked White House press secretary Scott McClellan for his reaction.

MCCLELLAN: I don't know about the specific memo. I've seen the reports, and I can tell you that they're just flat out wrong. The president of the United States in a very public way reached out to people across the world, went to the United Nations, and tried to resolve this in a diplomatic manner.

TODD: The White House has not responded to a letter sent earlier this month from John Conyers, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, calling for the Bush administration to explain the British report.

REP. JOHN CONYERS (D-MI), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The president has to answer this. I don't think we can laugh at the "London Times" and British intelligence. We need to know.

TODD: But the administration gets critical backing from Republican senator John McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Yes, but I do not believe that the Bush administration decided that they would set up a scenario that gave us the rationale for going into -- into Iraq.

TODD: McCain was part of a presidential commission that concluded prewar intelligence on Saddam's weapons was not manipulated but was simply wrong.
John McCain, white-washing Tom Sawyer's the White House's fence. I hate to complain, since CNN reported on the memo, but their report was pretty thin. Their correspondent spent more time getting "reaction" from the White House and "backing" from John McCain, whom I once held in high regard [UPDATE: he stands his ground on the filibuster here], than it did reporting on the details of the memo and its authenticity. Schorr, who ironically was one of Turner's first hires at CNN's inception, did all of that. Thank you, Daniel Schorr.

P.S. Does anyone believe that Scott McClellan didn't "know about the specific memo"? Funny, I knew about the "specific memo" when it hit the Times, thanks to whatever blogger mentioned the story the night before. In the ensuing two or more weeks, did McClellan not hear about the memo? Did no one who did call him? Or, if they did, did he refuse to read it? In short, is McClellan lying or is he as incompetent as he makes himself sound?

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