New “Downing Street” memos keep popping up. In recent days, several confidential memos written by senior officials in Tony Blair’s government in March 2002 have garnered attention. (AfterDowningStreet.org has all of them posted.) These records–first obtained by Michael Smith, a British journalist formerly working at the Daily Telegraph and now with the Sunday Times of London–provide more evidence that Bush’s case for war was less than convincing for his number-one ally. They also illustrate the hubris that drove Blair in his wartime partnership with George W. Bush.
The first and now infamous Downing Street memo chronicled a high-level briefing for Blair that occurred in July 2002, during which the head of British intelligence said Bush was already committed to war and intelligence and facts were being “fixed around the policy” and during which Foreign Minister Jack Straw reported the WMD case for war was “thin.” (See my previous column on the memo.) Months before this secret meeting, British officials were already sharing similar sentiments among themselves (not with the public, of course). In a March 22, 2002, memo for Straw, Peter Ricketts, political director of Britain’s foreign service, noted that “even the best survey of Iraq’s WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or [chemical weapons/biological weapons] fronts.” He also reported that the “US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Aaida [sic] is so far frankly unconvincing.”
A March 8, 2002, options paper prepared by Blair’s national security aides noted that Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was “effectively frozen,” its missile program “severely restricted,” and its chemical and biological weapons programs “hindered.” Saddam Hussein, it reported, “has not succeeded in seriously threatening his neighbors.” This paper also said the intelligence on Iraq’s supposed WMD program was “poor.” It noted that there was no “recent evidence” of Iraqi ties to al Qaeda.
All of this contradicts what Bush told Americans before the invasion of Iraq. He and his aides claimed that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, that Hussein was producing and stockpiling biological and chemical weapons, that Baghdad was in cahoots with al Qaeda, and that the intelligence obtained by the United States and other governments (presumably including the Brits) left “no doubt” that Iraq posed a direct WMD threat to the United States.
The British memos are further evidence that Bush overstated the main reasons for the war. They also show that his key line of defense is bunk. When confronted with questions about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush and his allies have consistently pointed to bad intelligence. But the previously released Downing Street memos and the new ones indicate that the Brits–who had access to the prewar intelligence–saw that the WMD case (based on that intelligence) was, as Jack Straw observed, weak. One might ask, why did they have such a different take than the one Bush shared with the public?