May 2, 2006
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Mark Danner un-Fixes the 'Facts' That Took Us Down the Road to War in Iraq
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Journalist Mark Danner likes to tackle the tough subjects. He wrote one book about the illegitimacy of the 2000 election, and another about America's use of torture. Now, in The Secret Way to War, Danner dissects the original government document that shows Bush and Blair concocted a phony rationale for invading Iraq. It's there, in plain English, in the two and a half page Downing Street Memo: "... the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Although that memo came to light one year ago, the media and the American public are just beginning to come to grips with it. Mark Danner helps us understand what our leaders wanted to do, versus what they decided to tell the world. The question now is, what do we do with that knowledge?
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BuzzFlash: We are offering The Secret Way to War – The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War’s Buried History as a premium to our BuzzFlash readers. This book includes a series of articles you wrote for The New York Review of Books at a time that the issue of the Downing Street memo found no traction in the mainstream media. Why did you think the memo and its phrase about fixing intelligence to fit the policy were so important, but the mainstream media gave it such short shrift?
Mark Danner: I first read the memo on May 1st of 2005, after I read about it having been published in the Sunday London Times. I expected that the American press would cover it and publish it fairly quickly. A few days passed – there was no interest whatever. I called up Robert Silvers, the co-editor of The New York Review of Books, and urged them to publish it. What is fascinating about the Downing Street memo, which is simply the record of a Cabinet meeting – is that there’s nothing obscure about it. It’s just the minutes of a Cabinet meeting on July 23, 2002, held at 10 Downing Street, the British White House.
To me, the importance is that it confirms a number of things that we know anyway – confirmation because it records what actually was said by the highest officials of the British government - the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, the Attorney General, and others, including the head of MI6, which is the British equivalent of the CIA. And because all of these officials are in very close touch with their American counterparts, the memo gives us a very clear picture of what’s going on, not only in the British government, but in the American government, in July of 2002, which is about eight months before the war against Iraq is actually launched.
On the one hand, much of what is said is not that surprising. The value of it is that it’s the words from the mouths of these high officials, confirming definitively many things that we already suspected. And what are those things? The first is that the decision to go to war against Iraq had been made, despite all the claims that if Saddam Hussein disarms, we won’t go to war, and it’s up to Saddam if he wants to have a war, et cetera, which was the rhetoric coming from President Bush in the months leading up to the war. This memo shows definitively, in the words of British high officials, that this was so much foggy propaganda. The decision to go to war had been made definitively by July, and probably months earlier. By July, the war planning was very well advanced; there was a fairly clear date when war would begin.
The subject of this meeting was not only to confirm that the Americans were completely determined to go to war. You also had the famous words of "C," Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, the equivalent of the CIA director in this country. He said that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." The policy was to go to war. The intelligence and the facts were being fixed around it. And Sir Richard had just gotten off the plane from Washington, where he had spent a day in a special retreat-type meeting with high officials of the CIA and others in the American intelligence community. He and a delegation of British high officials sat down with the Americans, spent a day talking about this issue, and then he came back and brought word, as it were, hot off the presses, to his British colleagues from these high level discussions. He told them that, not only is war inevitable, but the intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy.
The primary subject of discussion in the British meeting in July of 2002 has to do with the reason for the war. In other words, the war had already been decided on. What had to be figured out was the rationale for it. The British were very concerned that the international community would not approve the war. The attorney general in the meeting is quoted as saying, we have a problem here about the reason for the war. It can’t be a war for humanitarian reasons because there’s no humanitarian disaster going on in Iraq right now. It can’t be a war for self-defense because Iraq hasn’t attacked Great Britain or the United States. And regime change, as he says, is not a legitimate basis for going to war. You can’t legally say, I just want to get rid of the government I don’t like, and go to war for that reason. Therefore, the problem is: What is going to be our reason?
Much of the memo is taken up with a discussion of what will be the reason. The British clearly devise in this meeting a plan to go to the United Nations and demand that Saddam admit inspectors to look for the weapons of mass destruction. It’s very clear from the minutes of the meeting that the original idea and the original hope was that Saddam would refuse to admit the inspectors, and thus offer the Americans and the British a reason to go to war – a casus belli. If he refused to admit the inspectors, the British and the Americans could say, look, he’s not complying with the U.N. resolutions - and they could then go to war as a result.
The big concern on the part of the British in July of 2002 is, will the Americans go along with this plan? There’s great anxiety on the part of the British that the Americans basically don’t care about "the U.N. route," as they call it, and that they’re willing to go to war without U.N. approval. So the big anxiety on the part of the British allies is how do we persuade the Bush Administration to go to the United Nations? The plan to go to the United Nations – and this again is a quote – is "to wrong-foot Saddam" – that is, to push him into making a mistake which will allow the Americans and the British to say, look, he’s not agreeing to the will of the international community. We have to attack him.
All of this is set out in two-and-a-half pages of absolutely clear prose. It’s simply a recording of a cabinet meeting, but you get an absolutely crystal picture of what is happening in the interior of the American and British governments at the highest levels eight months before the war. Going to the U.N., and all of this shadow-play over the next eight months about the U.N., the inspectors, the weapons, and all the rest of it, is just that – shadow-play. The idea of going to the U.N. is a way to make the war possible, not a way to avoid war, as Bush always claimed that it was.
The notion that the Bush Administration put forward in the fall of 2002, before it went to the Congress to get approval for the war, was that if you want to prevent war, you should support the Administration in getting ready for war. That’s the only way to prevent war – to make sure that Saddam realizes we’re serious, and he will then agree to these measures, let the inspectors in, give up his weapons, et cetera. This was an argument, by the way, also used by President Bush’s father in the fall of 1990 – that is, we have to prepare for war in order to prevent war. If we prepare for war, perhaps Saddam will move out of Kuwait, and therefore we can avoid war. His son used the same method in the fall of 2002. But to many people, it was fairly obvious at the time that war was going to come – that the last thing the Bush Administration wanted was for Saddam to in some way cooperate to such an extent that war would be prevented.
Of course, Saddam did let the inspectors in – he didn’t do what Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush wanted, which was to refuse to let the inspectors in and thus give them a reason to go to war. He let them in, and the inspectors began looking. They inspected a hundred or so of the approximately 600 suspect sites. They found nothing. And there started to be a problem. The Bush Administration realized that this could go on for a long time, and how do we reach an end here? So they started demanding that Saddam produce his weapons. As we know now, he didn’t have any weapons, which meant there was nothing for him to produce. The French, the Germans, the Russians, the Chinese, wanted the inspections to continue until they looked at all the suspect sites, but the British and the Americans saw that if this happens, what do you do if they go to 600 suspect sites and still don’t find anything? How do you then declare that you have to invade the country?
So they put a stop to the inspections and started the war in March of 2003. They essentially demanded that the inspectors be removed. The British, who dearly wanted a new UN resolution – a second resolution by which the international community would approve going to war – did not get it. The international community was not willing to approve the war, and the war went on anyway.
BuzzFlash: This modus operandi of "We have to be prepared to go to war to get concessions," with the unspoken agenda being, "We’re going to war anyway," is also something that seems to be in the playbook for Iran. Whether or not Iran is developing a bomb is subject to as much speculation as was the WMD issue at the time of Saddam Hussein.
When the Downing Street memo was published in the London paper, the major papers in the United States hardly mentioned it at all. It took the Washington Post a couple weeks of voracious reader protest to even mention the existence of the Downing Street memo. One mainstream response was: Well, we know he lied. What’s the news? There’s nothing really to report. The other attitude, which was expressed by Michael Kinsley, then editorial page director of the L.A. Times, was that the memo doesn’t really prove all that much. Many of our readers at BuzzFlash and others on the Internet took this quite seriously.
Mark Danner: I think the American press ignored the Downing Street memo for a number of reasons. One is the difficulty of how to frame it as news. What exactly does it say? What would the headlines be? "Memo shows Bush decided on war eight months before war began"? That might be one way to frame it, I suppose. Then you get into the Michael Kinsley questions, which have to do with, well, does it really show that? Does it prove that? George Bush could always say – as he did, right up until the actual attack was launched – I don’t have war plans on my desk. I’ve not fully decided. On the one hand, those sorts of statements are absurd. On the other, if what you’re really requiring is full proof of what’s inside of the President’s head, then who are we to contradict him?
BuzzFlash: They didn’t seem to have a high standard in accepting what the Bush Administration said to the press.
Mark Danner: I’m just trying to make the point that the standard of proof here is somewhat absurd. What would constitute proof that a decision had been made to go to war this early, failing a recording of President Bush saying: "It’s July 23, 2002. I have decided to go to war definitively in March, 2003."
BuzzFlash: You’re a professor of journalism, you do investigative reporting, you did a book on Abu Ghraib and you connect the dots. It seems that mainstream journalism nowadays says that’s not our responsibility, to connect the dots. If there’s event A, event B, event C, event D, we can only report on one at a time.
Mark Danner: That’s true for a number of reasons. When we’re talking about the Downing Street memo and the war, there’s still this hangover about the failings of reporting – and failings of editorial judgment, which I think are more important – bad decisions about what was put on the front page and what was buried inside of the paper. There’s a hangover from the editorial decisions made in the run up to the war, which The New York Times and the Washington Post have actually explicitly apologized for. This memo, in its essence, directly confronted issues that the papers got wrong in the months leading up to the war.
I think that’s extremely important, and it has to do with why this memo was almost ignored. In the eight months before the war, various newspapers didn’t do a very good job in the reporting they did and the credulity they showed before Administration attempts to manage the news. That's one reason the Downing Street memo is such a problem for them.
BuzzFlash: They might not want to dwell on their shortcomings.
Mark Danner: Of course. What is the subject of the memo? It is that, during at least eight months before the war, what was being publicly reported about what the Administration was doing, decisions it was making, policies it was directing toward Iraq and toward the United Nations, was in large part a fraud. That’s what the memo shows. If you are a paper of record, having reported that fraud for eight months, the memo is not going to be an easy thing for you to cope with.
BuzzFlash: In other words, they reported the Bush Administration perspective on the fixing of the facts, rather than the facts.
Mark Danner: Exactly. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not simple. Some papers did well, and some people within individual papers did well, like Walter Pincus and others, whose work was not put on the front page, usually, but should have been. Stuff that shouldn’t have been on the front page, like some of Judy Miller’s stuff, was put on the front page. I don’t think it’s an easy issue at all to talk about this. I think it’s made more complicated by the fact that the Administration was extremely clever in how it managed the propaganda campaign. And they were also fighting this fight on their own turf, in a sense. The reasons for the war had to do with intelligence information. Reporters have to rely on what they hear from people in the intelligence agencies of the government, because the government controls what information is doled out.
In retrospect, there are two things one can say. One is that, during the time leading up to the war, there was a lot more debate about whether what the Administration was saying was true or not than we now remember. That’s point one. And point two was that the Administration managed information very cleverly. It played to the press and it managed the press very cleverly.
Having said all that, the press did not do a very credible job. One of the reasons the Downing Street memo was allowed to sink beneath the waves and wasn’t covered here was because the Downing Street memo essentially was a clear reminder and confirmation that so much of the news that was published in the run up to the war was propaganda managed by the government. That is a difficult thing for these newspapers to report. For eight months before the war, the Administration was lying and pretending, and we were writing about how the Administration was lying and pretending. That’s not a very pleasant thing to have to report.
BuzzFlash: There was a Downing Street memo or two that came out subsequently, indicating that Bush had proposed basically to get Saddam to do something that they would give them legal justification to attack.
Mark Danner: "Wrong-foot."
BuzzFlash: One way he was going to wrong-foot was to disguise American or British planes as U.N. planes, and have them shoot one down.
Mark Danner: Right.
BuzzFlash: So here was another confirmation that, not only were they fixing facts, but that Bush himself was freelancing looney-tune ideas.
Mark Danner: That’s true. This was a memo that described a meeting with Tony Blair at the end of January of 2003, only about six weeks before the war began.
BuzzFlash: So they were desperately trying to find a reason – a casus belli - just a few weeks before the Americans bombed Baghdad.
Mark Danner: Exactly. I think you can make a few points about that memo. The first is that it’s not so surprising that they would be pretty convinced they were going to war at the end of January, when in fact the date was penciled in for March 10th. So they were nearly completely sure when they were going to go to war, but they still had this little problem with the United Nations, which is that the inspectors had not been able to find any weapons. So how do you go to war?
The British Prime Minister and the American President were very close to diverging here, because Tony Blair desperately needed a vote from the U.N. to cover himself politically. He’s the leader of the Labor Party, and how does he justify sending British young men and women into war without any legal cover from the international community? The American President was much less concerned about that. He simply said, well, we’re going to try to get a second resolution. We’ll even threaten, as he says in the meeting, to get that second resolution. And they did that in the United Nations, but the Security Council refused to vote for a second resolution that would say go ahead and use force in Iraq. Most people on the Security Council wanted the inspectors to be given more time to complete the inspections.
The push to get the second resolution had enormous consequences for what happened next, because the American and British forces were isolated from the international community. The insurgency increased that isolation by attacking the United Nations sites, the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. The insurgency seized on this isolation from other countries as one of the main weaknesses of the occupation. They’ve been very successful in attacking and increasing American and British isolation.
One of the striking things about the memo from the meeting in late January of 2003 is the fact that the President is kind of reflecting still on ways you might provoke Saddam into doing things that would allow you to attack him. You know, maybe we can paint a plane U.N. colors and persuade them somehow to attack us. They were desperate to find some kind of provocation that would allow them to go forward with the attack. It’s very, very revealing.
I really urge people to actually read the original documents, which are in my book. The fact is, the Downing Street memo itself is only two-and-a-half pages, and it’s very clear, very lucid. It’s published in the book with seven other documents that came out around the same time that are fascinating, giving the British view of what’s going on in the U.S. when it comes to war planning. They give a clear picture of what is in the heads of these people before the war begins.
BuzzFlash: We've also had some very bizarre moments since then. In a recent town hall meeting, a student asked the President of the United States if he indeed declassified material that was then leaked to Judith Miller by Scooter Libby. President Bush gives a very long, rambling, smirking answer. As we’ve come to learn, there were no weapons of mass destruction. They sent a guy there to see if there were, figuring he’d cover for them, but he came out and said they weren’t there. If you have to come down on the side of anything, it would be that Cheney pressured the CIA to fix the intelligence. Joe Wilson was right. The President of the United States says that, yes, he declassified this because he wanted Americans to know the truth. In fact, he was allowing Libby to tell Judith Miller a skewed analysis of a classified memo, which was not the truth.
He was actually trying again to keep Joe Wilson from revealing the lie, and opening up other lies, that were part of the fix of the intelligence prior to the Iraq War. It is in a federal prosecutor’s document that Scooter Libby was told by Cheney that Bush had authorized this leak. It all goes back in many ways to the subject of the Downing Street memo, and to fixing the intelligence.
Mark Danner: Yes, it does. Clearly the important thing about the so-called declassification of the national intelligence estimate is that the message that Scooter Libby was charged to bring to Judith Miller by Cheney, who apparently was ordered to do it by George Bush, was a lie. The message that they were putting forward, that Saddam was vigorously trying to find uranium, was a lie. This is not what the NIE said. It certainly wasn’t a key conclusion of the national intelligence estimate that the Iraqis were trying to get uranium and were trying to push forward on the nuclear front. This was mentioned on, I think, page 29. It was not one of the bullet-pointed conclusions.
In the press, it’s been covered as if the great scandal originally was that Bush himself agreed to a leak after he had denounced leaks for so long - so isn’t it shocking that Bush agreed to a leak? Well, anybody who knows Washington is not at all shocked by that. Leaking to selected reporters is part of the daily business of Washington. There’s nothing shocking about the fact that Bush agreed to leak something.
What does warrant scrutiny is that, in leaking, they were lying. They had lied about it publicly, consistently saying that the smoking gun may be a mushroom cloud, with all of the stuff about how close the Iraqis were to getting nuclear weapons. The intelligence did not justify that, the IAEA did not justify it. They based it on information like the Niger story, that the CIA itself had completely discredited before Bush used it.
So, when they’re leaking in July 2003, when the war’s starting to go badly, when they haven’t found weapons of mass destruction on the ground, when the rationale for the war is starting to crumble, they take the chance to leak a document and to mischaracterize what’s in the document. What is outrageous is that the document itself, after all of this, should be made public. It’s a scandal to me that they can get away with - very, very selectively leaking some conclusions that are completely misleading – that in effect are lies. It’s a pity that the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction before the war, and of policymakers’ use of intelligence before the war, has not had a legitimate, authoritative investigation.
It’s an incredible thing that the United States is still, three years later, fighting this grinding insurgency war in Iraq, in which Americans continue to die, in which huge numbers of Iraqis continue to die. This war was fought in the cause of finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction that supposedly threatened the United States, but that turned out not to exist. Neither the Congress nor any other official body has undertaken an authoritative, thorough investigation of how that happened.
The Intelligence Committee of the Senate undertook an investigation of intelligence, but they excluded the issue of how policymakers used that intelligence, which is the key issue. The committee explicitly excluded it and put it off for another time – the so-called phase two of the investigation. That has not happened yet, and we’re three years into the war.
BuzzFlash: Did you find it surreal, that the President of the United States is standing up there claiming he declassified something so the truth could get to Americans?
Mark Danner: No. This Administration is extremely good at manipulating information. It doesn’t matter to them what I think and know, and it doesn’t matter what you think and know. What matters is what 50.4% of the American people think and know. And they’ve been very disciplined about this. They don’t care about the readers of The New York Times. They don’t care about readers of The New York Review of Books. They care about the people who vote for them. And much more than any other Administration, they’re extremely disciplined in who they’re talking to.
For most of his constituents, him standing up and saying I did it to get the truth out is enough for them. So, no, I don’t find it surprising at all.
One of the tragedies here is that this is now being looked at through the lens of this very complicated issue involving Scooter Libby and Cheney and Judy Miller. The only reason that this is occupying center stage is because it’s the only real investigation that’s going on. And it’s not really an investigation, it’s a court case with a grand jury and a federal prosecutor who isn’t technically looking at the broader issue of weapons of mass destruction at all. He’s looking at whether Scooter Libby lied to the grand jury about what he actually told Judy Miller and other reporters relating to the disclosure of the name of Valerie Plame. All of that, in the big picture, is distinctly a minor affair.
The only reason we’re talking about it is because there’s been no real investigation, as there should be, by the Senate Intelligence Committee or by some specially appointed commission on the general issue of weapons of mass destruction and the lies leading up to the war. Since there’s no real investigation, this is what we settle for. The country should be having a discussion about a war that’s still going on that was started on entirely false pretenses. It’s not worthy of the country. But so much else in the last five years hasn’t been.
BuzzFlash: You also wrote a book on torture, and you had a interview about it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. What is the reason that the Bush Administration decided upon a path of torturing quite extensively? Do they really think that this works?
Mark Danner: I think they made a decision after 9/11 that this is a new kind of war, a new paradigm, as Alberto Gonzales put it, and that the war had to be fought first and foremost on intelligence. The only way to prevent future terrorist attacks, was to have very accurate, very real-time intelligence. The phrase that was repeatedly used was, the gloves had to come off. Of course, the implication of that is that before 9/11, the gloves were on – that somehow these gloves being on had made possible these attacks. So there’s a self-exculpatory theme in that logic. We’re going to change how the government does business after 9/11. Why? Because the way the government did business before 9/11 made the attacks possible. In a sense, they’re shedding all these rules like who you can arrest, what you can do during interrogation, how you can hold people, what justification you can use, if any. Shedding all those rules, in a sense, was self-exculpatory. We have to get rid of these rules because they led to the attack. And if these gloves hadn’t been on, we would have been able to protect the country. That’s the broader logic.
BuzzFlash: Meaning that they failed to protect the country.
Mark Danner: Yes, but only in part due to their fault. The real fault was that "the gloves were on."
I think these officials – Cheney, Rumsfeld – don’t know anything about interrogation. At the bottom of a memo in which Rumsfeld approved various interrogation techniques, including forced standing for up to five hours, he very famously wrote a note saying: Why only five hours? I stand eight to twelve hours a day. You look at that and think, this man has no idea what the hell he’s approving here. This is forced standing. You can’t move. It builds up edema in your legs. It’s incredibly painful. This is what the Soviets used for years. And you look at that little notation and say, my God, he has no idea what the hell he’s doing. He doesn’t know the implications of this at all. It’s just somebody who’s saying we have to be really tough with these guys. For the people at the top, this is their way of getting tough and taking the gloves off, and changing the way the country does business. They think it’s effective.
BuzzFlash: Thank you very much for your contributions to covering the war and what’s important to our country.
Mark Danner: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History (Paperback) by Mark Danner, Frank Rich (Preface), a BuzzFlash Premium.
The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo and the Iraq War's Buried History by Mark Danner, a BuzzFlash Review.
The Secret Downing Street Memo (The Sunday Times Online).
The Downing Street Memos (www.afterdowningstreet.org/dsm)
Mark Danner's home page: http://www.markdanner.com/