I posted this on my personal blog at www.davidcorn.com and thought I should share it here as well.

I taped a television program on Friday, and the subject turned to the Downing Street memo–that now-famous memo that recorded a July 23, 2002, meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his chief aides in which Blair was told by the head of England’s CIA that the Bush administration had already decided to go to war and that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” Right away, the two conservatives on the panel–columnist Linda Chavez and radio host Michael Graham–issued a joint defense: the memo was nothing new, this had all been reported before (including at the time), even Bill Clinton supported regime change in Iraq, and a variety of reports have concluded that the WMD intelligence, while wrong, was not intentionally rigged. They really hammered that last point.

Much of this was wrong or misleading. Clinton may have supported the notion of regime change in Iraq; he did not back the particular war Bush launched. And while two reports–one produced by Senate Republicans; the other written by a panel appointed by Bush–reported no evidence of intelligence-tampering had been found, there were numerous media reports in which intelligence analysts claimed (yes, anonymously) that pressure was applied. Moreover, Democrats on the Senate intelligence panel did not agree with that committee’s nothing-there finding on this matter. In other words, it’s not a closed case.

But this discussion made me realize that perhaps those Bush critics waving the DSM around as gotcha evidence have placed too much emphasis on the “fixed” sentence. I suppose one could read it to mean that Richard Dearlove (aka C), the head of the British MI6, was telling Blair that the Bushies were “gearing” intelligence and facts toward their desire for war. Or perhaps he was indicating that they were building a case for war with whatever facts and intelligence they could find. All of these possibilities come across as somewhat dodgy. But maybe C did not mean “fixed” as in “rigged.”

There might be some wiggle room here for the Bushies. But the true impact of the DSM–which Chavez and Graham danced around–is that it shows that Bush was not being straight with the American public. At that point in time–the summer of 2002- Bush and his advisers were claiming that Bush had not yet decided to go to war, that he saw it as a last option, that he would try other alternatives–even diplomacy!–first. The obvious goal was to persuade the public that he was a reasonable fellow who would not rush to such a momentous decision. Yet the DSM, as many readers of this blog already know, discloses that C came back from Washington with quite a different impression:

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 NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

Let’s compare C’s insider’s view with the view given to the rest of us. On August 8, 2002, the Chicago Tribune ran a front page piece that read:

While portraying Iraq as a serious threat to American security, President Bush and his top advisers made a concerted effort Wednesday to reassure European and Arab allies that the administration would weigh its options and their concerns before trying to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

“I promise you that I will be patient and deliberate, that we will continue to consult with Congress and, of course, we’ll consult with our friends and allies,” Bush said in a speech in Madison, Miss.

“I will explore all options and all tools at my disposal: diplomacy, international pressure, perhaps the military,” he said.

The president’s comments, as well as those made by Vice President Dick Cheney and others, marked a distinct shift in tone. Administration officials have spoken repeatedly and strongly about the evils of Hussein’s regime and insist they would take whatever action against him they deem necessary, unilaterally if need be. However, Wednesday’s comments seemed designed to calm foreign leaders who are sharply questioning Bush’s call for a “regime change” in Iraq, which most have interpreted to mean a military invasion.

“The president has not made a decision at this point to go to war,” Cheney said in a speech in San Francisco. “We’re looking at all of our options. It would be irresponsible for us not to do that.”

C says he consultations in Washington indicated Bush wanted war. Yet Bush told the public otherwise. Not news? Only if you think a president misleading Americans about his desire for war is not worthy of attention.

All the focus on the “fixed” issue might be a distraction. This memo is evidence–more evidence, I should say–that Bush was committed to war from the start and said whatever needed saying (truth be damned) to sway the citizenry.

Which brings me to another point. The memo, as its devotees know, also reported that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at this meeting said that it

seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

A “thin” WMD case for war? So Bush had not even convinced Jack Straw. Isn’t it news that the foreign minister of the Bush’s number-one ally believed that Bush’s prime rationale for the invasion of Iraq was “thin”? (The U.K.’s attorney general at this meeting also raised questions about the legal basis of an invasion of Iraq.)

This steers us to a key matter. Conservatives like Chavez and Graham now like to hide behind the CIA, blaming bad intelligence for the missing WMDs. Bush didn’t screw up, they argue, he merely relied on inadequate intelligence. But the Straw section of the Downing Street memo kills that argument. Straw presumably had access to the best intelligence on the topic, and still he wasn’t sold. The bottom-line: even the bad intelligence led to a “thin” case. The problem was not merely the crappy intelligence; it was how Bush used the bad intelligence and stretched it beyond its limits to ease the way to war.

Put aside the question of “fixed” intelligence. The DSM demonstrates that Bush was dishonest with the public about his intentions and that the intelligence he did have in hand–fixed or not, faulty or not–did not support the case for war. I can understand why conservative cheerleaders of the war don’t want such matters being discussed. But to call the Downing Street memo an item of no importance is to descend into the land of total spin.

******

Speaking of which, if you haven’t read The Washington Post‘s front-page piece on the problems within the Iraqi security forces, do so. It captures the dilemmas of the Iraq mess in a depressing nutshell. It also is further proof of the rising credibility gap. The Bush administration keeps talking about the progress being made in Iraq. The reports from ground-level–such as this piece–blast apart such rhetoric. In a similar vein, Senator Joe Biden, who was recently in Iraq, reports that there are 107 Iraqi battalions that have been trained and placed in uniform but only three are operational. At this rate, Jeb P. Bush (or Chelsea Clinton) will be president when the Iraqi army can take on the insurgency.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the Post piece–written and reported well by Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru. Note the difference between what the on-the-ground solider says and how the general spins. Do you think we will ever see anyone in charge acknowledge reality in Iraq?

BAIJI, Iraq — An hour before dawn, the sky still clouded by a dust storm, the soldiers of the Iraqi army’s Charlie Company began their mission with a ballad to ousted president Saddam Hussein. “We have lived in humiliation since you left,” one sang in Arabic, out of earshot of his U.S. counterparts. “We had hoped to spend our life with you.”

But the Iraqi soldiers had no clue where they were going. They shrugged their shoulders when asked what they would do. The U.S. military had billed the mission as pivotal in the Iraqis’ progress as a fighting force but had kept the destination and objectives secret out of fear the Iraqis would leak the information to insurgents.

“We can’t tell these guys about a lot of this stuff, because we’re not really sure who’s good and who isn’t,” said Rick McGovern, a tough-talking 37-year-old platoon sergeant from Hershey, Pa., who heads the military training for Charlie Company.

The reconstruction of Iraq’s security forces is the prerequisite for an American withdrawal from Iraq. But as the Bush administration extols the continuing progress of the new Iraqi army, the project in Baiji, a desolate oil town at a strategic crossroads in northern Iraq, demonstrates the immense challenges of building an army from scratch in the middle of a bloody insurgency.

Charlie Company disintegrated once after its commander was killed by a car bomb in December. And members of the unit were threatening to quit en masse this week over complaints that ranged from dismal living conditions to insurgent threats. Across a vast cultural divide, language is just one impediment. Young Iraqi soldiers, ill-equipped and drawn from a disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, say they are not even sure what they are fighting for. They complain bitterly that their American mentors don’t respect them.

In fact, the Americans don’t: Frustrated U.S. soldiers question the Iraqis’ courage, discipline and dedication and wonder whether they will ever be able to fight on their own, much less reach the U.S. military’s goal of operating independently by the fall.

“I know the party line. You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period,” said 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato, 34, of Long Island, N.Y., the executive officer of McGovern’s company, who sold his share in a database firm to join the military full time after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won’t be ready before I leave. And I know I’ll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don’t think they’ll be ready then.”

“We don’t want to take responsibility; we don’t want it,” said Amar Mana, 27, an Iraqi private whose forehead was grazed by a bullet during an insurgent attack in November. “Here, no way. The way the situation is, we wouldn’t be ready to take responsibility for a thousand years.”

Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, which oversees an area of north-central Iraq that includes Baiji and is the size of West Virginia, called the Iraqi forces “improved and improving.” He acknowledged that the Iraqis suffered from a lack of equipment and manpower but predicted that, at least in his area of operation, the U.S. military would meet its goal of having battalion-level units operating independently by the fall.

I can tell you, making assessments, I think we’re on target,” he said in an interview.

On target for what? Make sure you read the full article.