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What the Hell is the Downing St. Memo -- and Who Cares?
Published on Sunday, June 19, 2005 by
What the Hell is the Downing St. Memo -- and Who Cares?
by David Benjamin
If you've been paying attention to left-wing propaganda mills like Air America radio, or studying the distant back pages of the New York Times and USA Today, or -- perchance -- reading the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s upstart editorial page, you might have encountered mention of something called the "Downing Street Memo."

Yeah. What the hell is that?

Well, the Downing Street Memo (or DSM) summarizes a top-secret meeting among foreign policy consultants to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The discussion took place eight months before the invasion of Iraq by U.S. President George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing." The memo was leaked to the Times of London and published on May 1st, 2005.

It provides a damning insight into the Bush regime's stampede toward war, indicating -- without much ambiguity -- that launching a military blitzkrieg was the first, and only, option under consideration. It contradicts months of subsequent White House assurances that war was a "last resort."

One relevant DSM paragraph (in which the protagonist is identified only by the initial "C") goes like this: "...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..." Although the DSM has been public record for six weeks, it's only moment in the limelight came during a joint Bush/Blair photo op, when a popinjay from Reuters brought it up. Bush and Blair hastened, breezily, to pooh-pooh the DSM, deftly avoiding reference to any actual contents. Neither the Reuters reporter nor any other alleged journalist troubled to follow these vapid and profoundly self-serving denials with additional questions.

Through this cameo, the public -- almost none of whom had ever heard of the Downing Street Memo, much less read a word of it -- became aware of it as an in-crowd gossip-bite thrown out by a smartass reporter clumsily trying to embarrass the President. Few media subsequently amended this impression by explaining or quoting the DSM. Most ignored the exchange completely. The DSM remains a mystery, shrouded in universal apathy.

During that brief DSM sighting, I couldn't help recalling the Pentagon Papers -- the secret (official) history of the American debacle in Vietnam -- which burst into the headlines 24 years ago this week.

First, the parallels between the Pentagon and Downing Street documents.

Like the Pentagon Papers, the DSM was leaked to a newspaper by a government insider, and rushed into print despite government objections.

Like the Pentagon Papers, few people actually read the DSM, or knew exactly what was in it. They knew, however, that it was a big deal that might make trouble for some big people, if it ever got out.

Both documents got out.

That's as far as the parallels go. Now the differences.

As soon as the Pentagon Papers hit the street, their very existence was the biggest news of 1971. The story lingered for months, in every corner of the Mainstream Media. The importance of the Pentagon Papers was underscored by the frantic efforts of the (Nixon) administration to suppress it, including repeated trips to the Supreme Court.

No such notoriety or controversy has affected the Downing Street Memo. The White House isn't worried, because nobody -- especially the Mainstream Media -- seems to care.

From the moment the Pentagon Papers bobbed to the surface of the cesspool then known as the Nixon administration, the public understood that this was information that reflected badly on the White House. They knew the Papers exposed their leaders as self-deluded connivers willing to sacrifice thousands of lives in pursuit of ideological pipe dreams. They knew the guy at the very top was involved, and that any denials he uttered were ludicrous.

On the Downing Street Memo, however, the only word available to most Americans are the President's denials, none challenged by the press.

In 1971, the public understood -- implicitly -- that they were getting a snow job, wrapped in a cover-up. They understood that it was immoral for the White House to deceive the public on matters of war and peace, and that the White House shouldn't be allowed to shrug off the controversy and return to business as usual. They enjoyed watching the President squirm.

Today, however, the DSM has never once interrupted business as usual. Today the press, the public and the loyal opposition have attained a level of cynicism that encourages deception, honors arrogance and validates the deniers of palpable fact. Today the press, the public and the opposition are the only people squirming. We feel powerless -- or, perhaps, fearful -- to stop the travesties committed in America's name, powerless to right the wrongs promulgated in secret meetings and fostered by mendacity in high office. Today the only understanding implicit in the body politic is a quiet acceptance that there is no way to make America better, fairer, more honest, more peaceful.

We have transcended the Pentagon Papers. We have gone beyond Watergate, and we are slouching towards Bethlehem.

David Benjamin is a novelist and journalist who splits his time between Madison, Wisconsin and Paris. His latest book is The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.


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