The Downing Street Memo is the gift that just keeps on giving. And
well it should. It is the smoking gun which proves that the gravest
possible crime was committed by the Bush administration, and among its
victims were the American people.
I am more hopeful about American politics than I have been in a long
time, though still cautious. For nearly five years now, the Bush
administration has gotten away with murder - literally and
figuratively - with seemingly immutable impunity, always defying the
laws of political gravity, at least as they are known in this
universe. So I've come to be tentative and rather pessimistic about
the possibilities of ending this national nightmare of reaction,
thievery and militarism, and bringing these criminals to justice.
But Downing Street seems to have legs, and I feel a critical mass
building now. It is different this time, in part, because this is the
first true insider smoking gun, set down in black and white. But it
is also different, in part, because the context has changed. Unlike
previous revelations, from the Clarke or O'Neill (Suskind) books, for
example, the evidence this time comes against the background of
growing discontent at home with the disaster of Iraq, and the
diminished credibility of a president and the movement of regressive
politics he leads.
Generally content or frightened people will forgive a lot, sometimes
even murderous lies of this magnitude. But angry, deceived people
will not. Bush has built himself a credibility gap of which Lyndon
Johnson could be proud, which probably accounts more than anything for
his inability to sell the bundle of Social Security deceits he's been
peddling. He said he was going to get Osama 'dead or alive'. He
didn't. He said his tax scheme would revive the economy. It didn't.
He said it wouldn't add to the national debt. Boy, did it.
He and his minions said Iraq was a necessary war, in response to an
urgent threat, and that American 'liberators' would be greeted with
flowers and chocolate. None of that came true, of course, and now the
public no longer supports George and Dick's Excellent Adventure in the
Cradle of Civilization. Fifty-seven percent of Americans perceive the
war as going badly. Only forty percent think that it's been worth it
to remove Saddam from power given the costs in troops and dollars.
And only thirty-eight percent approve of how Bush is handling the war.
Moreover, Iraq echoes the tragedy of Vietnam in every salient way,
from the lies going in, to the 'everything's just fine' detachment of
the political class, the international opprobrium, the inability to
effectively fight counter-insurgency warfare, and the lack of any sort
of remotely appealing exit scenario. And on the Nam trajectory, it
feels like we are at 1970 or so in terms of public disenchantment.
(In part, we should note, that is precisely because of the lessons
learned from that war, which produced a healthy increase in political
skepticism among the American public.) But in Vietnam, the Tet
Offensive had already occurred by 1970, and so, for many years, had
the draft. Imagine what will happen to already low and falling
support for the Iraq debacle if in the coming months there is a
single, highly demoralizing reversal for the US military in Iraq, a la
Tet, or if a starved military is forced to reinstitute the draft.
This is the context in which the damning evidence of the Downing
Street Memo arrives, and it is part of the explanation for why the
Bush administration may now finally find itself in the deep trouble it
so richly deserves.
The Memo itself lays out in clear text the game of deceit played by
the Bush and Blair gangs in the run-up to the Iraq War. Among its
highlights, the DSM confirms that the war had been decided upon well
before Congressional or UN Security Council action, and before weapons
inspectors were inserted and then removed because of the 'urgency' of
Iraq's threat (of course, the real urgency and real threat was that
the absence of WMD would kill Bush's pretext for war). The Memo then
goes on to show, most significantly, that the war planners knew their case was "thin", so they distorted - "fixed" - the intelligence and facts in order to market the war. (For a more complete discussion of the Memo itself and the wholesale failures of the mainstream media to treat this earth-shattering story with anything approaching the coverage it deserves, see
Eighty-nine members of the House sent a letter to the president asking
for clarification of the ominous implications of the Memo, and White
House Press Secretary Scott McClellan soon began getting questions
about it. It will hardly surprise attentive readers that his response
to these questions was smug, condescending, and maximally
disingenuous. Without addressing the content or implications of the
Memo (and, most absurdly of all, while claiming not to have read it),
McClellan refers us to the president's statements of the time, which
he says provide a clear record of Bush's honest and very public
diplomacy on the Iraq issue. It turns out, however, that if one
examines that record just as McClellan suggests, one finds anything
and everything but honesty from Bush and his team. Instead, precisely
as the DSM prescribes, we were given a boatload of knowing lies from
the administration, often in the most visible of fora, like the State
of the Union address (see
Since these initial developments, much has happened in just a short
time. First, knowledge of the Memo's existence is becoming more
widespread. As of this moment, I doubt more than one percent of
Americans are aware of the story, but that number is increasing
rapidly, especially through the alternative media. More and more
articles written on a variety of subjects make reference to it, even
in passing, and it is flying across email networks with accelerating
rapidity. Google "Downing Street Memo" and about 267,000 hits are
returned at present, with that number rising fast. The story feels at
this moment like a virus about to kick into the exponential phase of
its growth curve, or a pregnant cloud about to burst showers over the
The mainstream media is addressing the DSM, but still only in bits,
and - it would appear - only reluctantly. No doubt the experiences of
CBS and Newsweek have been precisely as intimidating as the White
House intended them to be, and no doubt fears of lost profits prove
even more sobering. Just the same, there is movement, and some of it
has been forced by us. Two weeks too late, for example, the New York
Times finally ran a brief single-column story. Of course, they buried
it on page 10, and they gave the story the wrong emphasis.
Its first paragraph reads "More than two weeks after its publication
in London, a previously secret British government memorandum that
reported in July 2002 that President Bush had decided to 'remove
Saddam, through military action' is still creating a stir among
administration critics. They are portraying it as evidence that Mr.
Bush was intent on war with Iraq earlier than the White House has
acknowledged." The article goes on to develop this theme of timing,
which is by far the lesser of the two main deceits proven by the DSM.
Almost no mention is made in the article of the much more egregious
crime of lying about the necessity of the invasion for American
security needs, and willfully constructing an entire campaign of
disinformation to market the war.
The Times also felt the pressure of its readership on this issue to
such an extent that the new Public Editor, Byron Calame, was compelled
to publish an online response to the "flood" of angry email from
readers expressing disappointment and worse at America's so-called
newspaper of record. Mr. Calame writes "My checks find no basis for
Ms. Lowe's [a sample incensed correspondent] concern about censorship
or undue outside pressures. Rather, it appears that key editors
simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered
meeting on a life-and-death issue - their authenticity undisputed -
probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers. Even if
the editors decided it was old news that Mr. Bush had decided in July
2002 to attack Iraq or that the minutes didn't provide solid evidence
that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times
readers deserved to know that earlier than today's article [Calame is
referring here to the article discussed in the previous paragraph]."
Again, this goes to the lesser issue raised by the DSM, but Calame
then interviews Phil Taubman, the NYT Washington Bureau Chief, who
addresses the more salient question of the manipulation of
intelligence to sell the war. Says Taubman: "It is mighty suggestive
that Lord Dearlove, the chief of MI6, came home with the impression,
or interpretation, that 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed
around the policy.' However, that's several steps removed from
evidence that such was the case. The minutes did not say that Mr.
Tenet had told that to Lord Dearlove or that Lord Dearlove had seen
specific examples of that. The minutes, in my estimation, were not a
smoking gun that proved that Bush, Tenet and others were distorting
intelligence to support the case for war."
There are two huge problems with this alibi for the Times' obscene
failure. First, by any reasonable standard, the Memo absolutely does
provide such 'evidence' that the facts were being fixed. It says so
itself. And, remember that it is an internal British government
document, leaked to the public. As such, and since it was never
intended to see the light of day, there would be no reason for it to
be dishonest or distorted for the benefit of its original readers.
Remember also that Tony Blair has in fact commented briefly on the
Memo, but never denied its veracity in any fashion. Recall that a
member or former member of the Bush team who was privy to these
discussions has confirmed, off the record, the accuracy of the Memo.
And remember that the Memo's blueprint fits precisely with what are
now established facts from the period, namely, that the Bush people
told lie after whopping lie about Iraq's WMD capabilities, and did so
knowingly. All told, this amounts to an extremely powerful case, one
which would certainly prove highly persuasive in a criminal case,
where the standards of proof are far higher than they are for a
public's evaluation of their political leaders in a democracy.
But, even if this extremely persuasive evidence were not on the table,
the second problem with the Times' lame excuse is that unassailable
evidence of a crime (do we ever have that?) is hardly necessary for
publication of a news story, anyhow. We don't 'know' yet whether Tom
DeLay is guilty of the accusations which have been made against him,
but those accusations are themselves highly newsworthy, and have been
treated, appropriately, as such. We don't yet 'know' definitively
whether John Bolton is a 'kiss up, kick down' sort of fellow, but the
fact that there is some evidence suggesting that might be the case
deserves, and got, plenty of media coverage. And I sure don't
remember a lot of media hesitation over Whitewater or Monicagate. Me,
I'm just one guy out here in the hinterlands, but where I come from,
very powerful evidence of a president lying to sell a war - evidence
which has not been disputed, evidence which has been independently
corroborated in multiple ways, and evidence which has caused deep
concern among a large portion of Congress - well, that's worthy of a
wee bit more coverage than we've seen to date. Indeed, apart from
9/11, what story of the last decade is bigger than this?
The arguments proffered by the Times for its poor coverage of the DSM
render this news blackout and associated coverup distortions looking
very much like a case of disingenuousness of which the White House
would be proud. Together, they would constitute a crime on top of a
crime, but for the fact that it is not, alas, the first episode in
this ugly story. By its own (very late) admission, the Times betrayed
its responsibility to the American public during the run-up to the war
- precisely the period described in the Memo - by failing to question
the 'evidence' and claims offered by the administration for the
necessity of going to war, serving instead as a virtual government
stenographer. That makes the current fiasco - at best - a perfect
trifecta of botched journalism from America's paper of record. But it
also makes that 'at best' interpretation seem increasingly
implausible. Far more likely with such a series of failings, all in
the same direction of massively favoring the administration, is that
the Times is purposely abdicating its duty as a government watchdog.
Whether that is because of cowardice, profits, both, or some other
explanation is as yet unclear.
My, how far we've traveled. In this week full of Watergate
reminiscences, the irony of our present condition could not be more
complete. Three decades ago, two cub reporters with the backing of a
great patriotic paper struggled to uncover, bit by painstaking bit,
information which saved the republic from a highjacking. Today, the
story is out there in plain sight, and yet the
no-longer-remotely-great journalistic organs not only fail to present
it, they conspire to cover it up, adding their own special
contribution to the current unraveling of constitutional government.
Increasing numbers of Americans are coming to realize that learning
the truth about their country requires going to foreign sources like
the BBC, or to alternative electronic media.
Fortunately, however, American journalism still exhibits a pulse in a
few parts of the country. Most significant so far has been a stunning
cri de coeur out of Minneapolis, deep within America's heartland and
hardly a Havana, Falluja or even Berkeley. In a devastating Memorial
('Memo'rial?) Day editorial, the Star Tribune called the president
what he is, a liar who has committed the gravest sin any
commander-in-chief ever could, "spending [American soldiers'] blood in
an unnecessary war based on contrived concerns about Iraq's weapons of
Wow. One can only imagine the shivers running down the spines of
Rove, Bush, Cheney and the rest as they read those words and consider
the (very mainstream) source. Already unpopular and no longer
trusted, the Memo has the capacity to devastate if not destroy this
White House, and potentially even to sentence its occupants to
financial ruin and long prison terms. (If this were to get any
sweeter, more deserved, or more ironic, those jail cells would turn
out to be in The Hague, rather than Leavenworth. Nobody pinch me yet,
please, this is too good.)
Indeed, the ironies which may ensue from this point forward are
exquisite to contemplate. Those who have recklessly dismantled
American democracy over the last two decades in a naked pursuit of
power may well in turn become victims of several of the destructive
precedents they themselves have established.
For starters, consider Karl Rove's dilemma right now. He is in
precisely the position he has long loved to place his opponents (such
as Democratic members of Congress over the Iraq war vote just before
the elections of 2002, to choose just one example). If he says
nothing about the DSM, he risks it continuing to proliferate
exponentially, with more and more mainstream, heartland, media hurling
devastating and unanswered body blows at the Bush administration,
until ultimately a tidal wave of rage crests over 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue. But if he addresses it head on, he risks making tens of
millions of Americans aware of something they presently are not, with
most of them likely to then see the plain message of this evidence for
exactly what it is.
Hobson's choice or not, at the rate things are progressing, the White
House will have to respond, and likely soon. Just this week a chorus
of impeachment calls has echoed across the alternative media,
including even one (at least) from a conservative source, Paul Craig
Roberts of the Hoover Institution, who accuses Bush of "intentionally
deceiving Congress and the American people in order to start a war of
aggression against a country that posed no threat to the United
States". He goes on to note, quite accurately, that "As intent as
Republicans were to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about a
sexual affair, they have a blind eye for President Bush's far more
To get a sense of how frightened and vulnerable the Bush team is,
consider McClellan's response to a reporter's question about the
letter sent by 89 members of the House calling for an explanation of
the Downing Street Memo. McClellan said the White House saw "no need"
to answer the letter. This tells us three things, right off the bat.
First, the Bush administration is blocking Congress from performing
its constitutionally mandated duty of oversight of the executive.
Well, no surprise there. Second - and, again, absolutely no surprise
- this White House has once more demonstrated its seemingly
inexhaustible capacity to break all prior records for arrogance.
Napoleon couldn't touch this stuff, and neither could Nero. Imagine
believing that you're above answering basic questions posed by
Congress about the single biggest issue of our time. Imagine seeing
"no need" to explain to the country why documentary evidence exists
showing that you lied your way into a war which continues to consume
American soldiers by the thousands, with no end in sight. Now, that's
how they do it in the big leagues.
But experience reminds us that arrogance and bullying behavior almost
always serve to mask massive insecurities just beneath, bringing us to
the third revelation which can be extrapolated from McClellan's
non-comment. Think about it. The gravest possible accusation has
been made against the president and his team, emanating from, among
others, one-fifth of the House of Representatives. In addition to its
moral implications, it has the political capacity to topple the
presidency and perhaps kill the entire regressive right movement of
the last quarter-century. It is, in short, some very serious
business. Knowing what we know about how these folks viciously attack
anyone who besmirches them in the slightest, what are we to make of
their silence on this most lethal - this most existential - of
political attacks? No doubt they are completely trapped by the
evidence and can only hope and pray the Memo just goes away. But ever
true to form, McClellan, Bush, Cheney and the whole lot of them would
be strewing carnage across the landscape on this issue if they could
get away with it. Just ask CBS, Newsweek, Amnesty International, Paul
O'Neill, Richard Clarke, John McCain or John Kerry. Get in their way,
and the attacks come hard, fast and personal. That they are not now
in full assault mode further affirms the accuracy and power of the
Memo, as well as suggesting that the White House is strategically
trapped between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps they even find
themselves in shock and awe.
It is crucial now for progressives and patriots of all stripes to push
this opportunity as hard as possible, down multiple paths.
The mainstream media is the most significant avenue for advancing this
initiative which has the potential to take down Bush. We must
continue to exert unrelenting pressure on media outlets simply to do
their jobs, so that the public may be informed of this gravest breach
of its trust. Members of Congress, led by John Conyers, have also
played an important role so far by providing legitimacy to the
critique, a rallying point around which other vectors can agglomerate,
and an important angle the media can exploit should they ever decide
one day to earn their salaries. We must do more to pressure Congress,
particularly vulnerable Republicans (and I predict there may be quite
a lot of them in 2006) to take this
question seriously or explain to their constituents why they do not.
Impeachment is completely warranted for the crimes committed by the
Bush administration, and we must relentlessly demand this outcome. As
mentioned above, there are potentially exquisite ironies in this case,
and this is one of them. Having impeached Clinton for lying about
oral sex, how ridiculous would Republicans now appear trying to argue
that there is no impeachable offense here?
Another example of sublime irony might be produced by a court case,
perhaps over a wrongful death charge. Cindy Sheehan (bless you for
your sacrifice, and for your tireless work to save others from the
same fate), are you reading this? History is calling your name. And
once again, imagine the patently obvious hypocrisy of Republicans
trying to prevent the president from having to testify in such a case,
after they just got through establishing a legal precedent for the
same by forcing Clinton to do so, while in office, over the far less
harmful allegation of sexual harassment.
And, in yet another example of exquisite irony, imagine how
unsympathetic the judiciary is likely to be toward them, after the
radical right has excoriated judges who don't bend to their will, to
the point that GOP senators have offered justifications for recent
violence directed against judges.
The regressive movement of the last several decades has provided a
vicious spectacle, to the extent that internal cannibalization always
seemed one likely avenue for its ultimate demise, with, for example,
the far right running a nearly successful primary candidate against
sitting Republican Senator Arlen Specter last year.
But this is better. Lots better. After a quarter century of scorched
earth politics, I could not have designed a more appropriate fate for
these destroyers of democracy than to be hoisted by their own petards,
and then taken out by their own destructive precedents.
America has gone seriously astray due to the regressive right movement
that began in earnest with Reagan, incubated under Gingrich, and
blossomed full-blown in the era of Bush, Scalia and DeLay. This
political cancer has yielded death, destruction, environmental
wreckage, massive debt, wholesale violations of human rights,
diminishment of national security, dismantling of constitutional
democracy at home and widespread hatred for America abroad. And
that's just the first term. It is difficult to imagine that one could
ruin a country so thoroughly in just four years, but the Bush team has
succeeded famously (with a good deal of help from the press, the
Democrats and the public). Finally, it appears that we have in the
Downing Street Memo a weapon, and with it the proper context, to end
our long national nightmare.
David Michael Green (email@example.com) is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.