Remembering the Downing Street Minutes

By David Swanson,, July 22, 2007

In the Marx Brothers movie "Duck Soup" which was a dark spoof of pre-war Germany, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) who is the Prime Minister of Fredonia, is asking his cabinet, "Any old business?" Someone says, "Yes, about the taxes ..." And Groucho says, "Nah, that's new business." Later, Groucho asks, "Any new business?" "Now, about the taxes ..." the minister says. "Sorry," Groucho cuts him off. "We handled that under old business."

Remember when Bush and Cheney's lies weren't old news?

Neither do I.

But I do remember writing the following in June 2005, and I'm moved to bring it out again to mark the 5th anniversary of the meeting that produced the Downing Street Minutes on July 23, 2002. In this remake, Dana Milbank plays Prime Minister Firefly:

The most repeated excuse by U.S. media outlets for not covering the Downing Street Minutes and related documents is that they tell us nothing new, that they're old news. This conflicts, of course, with the second most common excuse, which is that they are false. If they're false, they can't be news at all, much less old news.

So, the question arises, when was this new news? At what point did it become old news to report that Bush had decided by the summer of 2002 to go to war and to use false justifications related to weapons of mass destruction and ties to terrorism? Of course, in one sense anything we discover now about secret goings on three years ago is old news – but that sense of being old news doesn't seem to spare us details of, for example, the Michael Jackson trial or the steroids in sports scandals. In those and many other cases, we're treated to news that's about old events. By that definition of old news we could have skipped Whitewater altogether.

Perhaps, then, something becomes old news in the relevant sense when a majority of the public has heard about it. But that can't be right, since so much of the American public, in the latest polls I know about, believes that Saddam Hussein actually did have ties to the 9-11 attacks and actually was stockpiling vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction. That this was all a crock intended to sell the public a war can't be old news while people still believe it's true, can it?

Well, then maybe a story becomes old news as soon as it shows up in some back-page article with a buried lead, even as the front page trumpets the opposite. Or maybe even showing up in international or independent or web-based media qualifies. But if that were right, then much of what major US corporate media outlets report would be old news. Some outlets might need to shut down altogether in order to avoid running old news, by that definition.

So, let's say that a story becomes old news for a particular media outlet once that outlet has told the story in at least one hidden misleading little blurb. Let's not even stipulate that other, more prominent reporting in the same outlet can't blatantly contradict the story.

Limiting our analysis to one media outlet at a time seems more honest than discussing "the media." There is something more frank and fair, I think, in the USA Today's publishing excuses for not covering the Downing Street Minutes (even excuses that would never have gotten past my fifth grade teacher) than there is in NBC's asking a guest about "the famous Downing Street Memo" without ever having previously taken any steps to make it famous – such as reporting on it.

So let's use the example of the Washington Post.

(Full disclosure: I live in the metro area daily desecrated by this publication, with which I would not line a bird cage. I am one of the co-founders of, and I'm employed by When Post writer Dana Milbank reported two weeks ago that the story of the Downing Street Memo was over, we posted his article [or column; his ombudsman has recently given him license to call supporters of governmental checks and balances "wing-nuts" because he writes "columns"] and his Email address.

When Milbank explained that he'd meant that the silence was over, not the story, we took down his Email address and posted his explanation for readers to try to make their own sense of. But Milbank forwarded me a nasty anti-Semitic Email someone had sent him, and which he blamed on us. We tried to explain to him that we don't actually control all computer users, but he would have none of it. He then produced on June 17 perhaps the worst piece of journalism I've ever seen:

Congressman John Conyers' response to it is worth reading:

Milbank also pretended that organized the hearing that Congressman Conyers organized with help from the coalition, of which is one member. Apparently this was because of some weird grudge Milbank has against, which predates me, but which he describes as stemming from some nut contacting him years ago – again, allegedly compelled or encouraged to do so by

On June 19, 2005, Post ombudsman Michael Getler defended Milbank and then wrote: "Much of the mail criticizing Milbank was also directed at op-ed columnist Michael Kinsley, who, in a June 12 column, said leftist activists' continued focus on the memo showed an ability to develop 'a paranoid theory.' Later in the week, The Post's editorial page also weighed in on the Downing Street memos (another has been leaked), saying: "They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002." That also brought mail.
I have a different view. The July 23 memo is important because it is an official document produced at the highest level of government of the most important U.S. ally. Its authenticity has not been disputed. Whatever some people said or wrote three years ago, there has never been -- except for this memo -- any official, authoritative claim or confirmation that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Well, three cheers for Getler for having a different view. But what interests me is what the Post's editorial board believes was publicly known in July 2002. The Downing Street Minutes, if accurate, make clear that in July 2002 the Bush administration had secretly decided on war and was manipulating evidence related to WMD and terrorism in order to sell it through false advertising. The documents also make clear that going to the United Nations would be an attempt to legalize a predetermined war, not an attempt to avoid the Bush administration's publicly stated goal of "regime change."

Was this public knowledge in July 2002? Let's read the Post:

Reading all the Washington Post articles, columns, and editorials containing the word "Iraq" and appearing in the Nexis database in June, July, and August, 2002, fails to find these facts publicly reported. Of course, I cannot comment on what Post editors knew and kept to themselves, but it is what they told the kids who were going to be sent off to kill and die that seems most significant.

We find in this period of reporting no report that two false justifications had been settled upon. On the contrary, we read numerous pieces of stenography conveying these false justifications from the mouths of Bush and his top staff to our eyes, as if they were worthy of consideration. We find reports on various people or groups, such as European leaders, having concluded that Bush was set on war, but no report from the Post on whether that was true or not. In fact, we find almost no direct reporting on the war planning and its justifications, but numerous tangential articles that slip assumptions in unreported.

On the editorial pages we find very few letters to the editor on Iraq, but numerous columns and editorials supporting the war, many of which ask the President to hurry up and make a better case for it. We find no strong anti-war voices, and only a few voices with hesitations or concerns.

For the record, here's how the Washington Post publicly communicated the contents of the Downing Street Minutes in July 2002:


On June 23, 2002, a month before the meeting on Downing Street that we wish we could now call famous, the Post printed an editorial on the "war on terror" that slipped in this phrase: "While noisily gearing up to counter the threat of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq…."

On July 13, 2002, the Post ran an editorial that addressed the need for Turkey's help in a war on Iraq. On August 4, the Post editorialized that there was a debate going on over whether to launch a war. (Remember, it was supposedly public knowledge in July that the war had already been decided upon.) On August 13, the Post editorialized that Iraq had refused to allow in weapons inspectors. In actual fact, Iraq had long tried to bring in inspectors on condition that, if they found nothing, the sanctions against Iraq would be lifted.

On August 18, 2002, the Post to all appearances joined the Pentagon payroll – see below.


June 23, 2002 – a pro-war column.

June 26 – a column urging Bush to lay out more of his war plans, and a column predicting democracy in Iraq in "a few years." That'd be pretty soon, now, huh?
"In a matter of only a few years, Palestine will be one of two new Arab democratic states. The other neonatal Arab democracy will be Iraq. These unthinkable developments will revolutionize the power dynamic in the Middle East, powerfully adding to the effects of the liberation of Afghanistan to force Arab and Islamic regimes to increasingly allow democratic reforms. A majority of Arabs will come to see America as the essential ally in progress toward liberty in their own lands. Within the boundaries of gambling and guessing, I believe all this might really come to pass. The reason I do is that George Bush believes it might."

June 29 – a column predicting democracy in Iraq.

June 30 – a pro-war column.

July 2 – assertions that Al Gore agrees with Bush's war plans.

July 5 – a pro-war column.

July 7 – a column against unilateralism, and another citing New York Times reporting to the effect that war planning was well underway. (How did this fail to register in the August 4 editorial mentioned above and in the next three years of reporting and kibitzing? Well, it didn't have to. It was "public knowledge".)

July 11 – a truly vicious, bloodthirsty column tying Iraq to 9-11 and claiming that Iraq had WMD. The headline was "Evil Under Scrutiny."

July 12 – a column urging that debate take place on war question.

July 21 – a column on Europeans resigning themselves to Bush having decided on war (which the Post had not reported), but urging consideration of what would follow the war in Iraq.

July 24 – a column comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler.

July 25 – two columns urging Bush to make his case for war.

July 30 – a column against unilateralism.

July 31 – a pro-war column.

July 31 – a second pro-war column insisting that Congress should be the body to declare the war.

July 31 – a column suggesting that attacking Iraq could lead Hussein to use chemical and biological weapons.

Aug. 1 – two pro-war columns.

Aug. 4 – Our friend Getler commented on how great it was that leaks about war planning were leading to public debate over whether to go to war.

Aug. 8 – a pro-war column.

Aug. 9 – a column urging that Congress be the body to vote for war.

Aug. 11 – a column on the scary "Mid-East threat," and another on Kurds supporting the war.

Aug. 14 – a pro-war column.

Aug. 15 – a pro-war column.

Aug. 16 – a column asking for reasons for the war.

On August 18, the Post went over the cuckoo's nest: see below.


June 25, 2002 – An article quoting without critical comment Bush remarking on "regimes that promote terror, like Iraq."

June 25 – Another article interchanging Iraq and Al Qaeda in every other sentence and quoting without critical comment Dick Cheney asserting that a "regime that hates America must never be permitted to threaten Americans with weapons of mass destruction.

June 29 – a short article on bombing of Iraq, with no mention that bombing missions had increased or that they were being used to try to provoke Iraq into an incident that could justify a war (presumably this was public knowledge, so it didn't have to be said.)

July 3 – an article treating Dick Gephardt as a serious presidential contender, in part because he supported a war on Iraq.

July 5 – an article on how big and bad US weapons would be in attacking Iraq.

July 5, 6 – two articles on weapons inspections talks.

July 9 – quote of Bush reported uncritically: "It's a stated policy of this government to have a regime change. And it hasn't changed. And we'll use all the tools at our disposal to do so."

July 9 – Dana Milbank and Mike Allen quoted the above line from Bush plus comments that any questions about whether he'd decided on war were "hypothetical." No follow up. No critical comments, analysis, or actual reporting.

July 12 – an article quoting a tap dancer asserting that Saddam Hussein could threaten the United States with chemical weapons.

July 15 – an article tying a possible war on Iraq to the "war on terror," and suggesting that Democrats should have a hard time opposing the war

July 16 – Five sentences on a new bombing mission in Iraq. No mention that bombing missions had increased or that they were being used to try to provoke Iraq into an incident that could justify a war (presumably this was public knowledge, so it didn't have to be said.)

July 17, 18 – two articles on Turkey possible backing war.

July 19 – The Washington Post Dot Com (but not the print version) covered the online and international media focus on the coming attack on Iraq.

July 19 – an article on Iraq trying to build allies against the war.

July 20 – an article on Bush opposing the International Criminal Court – an article that parenthetically discusses Bush trying to find foreign allies for war

July 24 – Yet another little blurb on bombing Iraq – presented as a response to Iraqi provocation. No mention that bombing missions had increased or that they were being used to try to provoke Iraq into an incident that could justify a war (presumably this was public knowledge, so it didn't have to be said.)

July 26 – An actual lengthy (881 words) article on bombings of Iraq. No mention that bombing missions had increased or that they were being used to try to provoke Iraq into an incident that could justify a war (presumably this was public knowledge, so it didn't have to be said.)

July 28 – The closest thing to anti-war voices. An article on military bigwigs arguing against war. But the article made a case that they were misguided, referred to the weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's "potential for acquiring long-range missiles," and quoted Richard Perle assuring us that civilians would make the decision, not the military.

July 30 – Another five sentences on bombing – in response to "hostile actions by Iraqis." No mention that bombing missions had increased or that they were being used to try to provoke Iraq into an incident that could justify a war (presumably this was public knowledge, so it didn't have to be said.)

July 31 – Scary tales about an underground chemical weapons test chamber in Iraq.

Aug. 1 – an article on debate within the Bush administration.

Aug. 1 – an article on foreign leaders being convinced Bush had decided on war. But was Washington Post convinced? And if so, why didn't they tell us?

Aug. 2 – an article on the US Department of Defense funding the opposition in Iraq.

Aug. 2 – a blurb on Iraq being open to weapons inspections.

Aug. 3 – an article on UN and US reactions to Iraq overture re inspections.

Aug. 4 – an article stating that Collin Powell does not take Iraq's invitation to weapons inspectors seriously.

Aug. 5 – an article on how there's a debate over whether to go to war.

Aug. 6 – an article on a Democrat predicting an October attack.

Aug. 6 – an article on neo-con theories that attacking Iraq will lead to democracy in Iraq and in Saudi Arabia. This was NOT in the comics section.

Aug. 7 – article on UN rejecting offer regarding inspections.

Aug. 8 – an article on Blair (what about Bush??) facing public opposition to war.

Aug. 8 – an article on Saudi Arabia refusing to help with war. (They must have heard about that democracy thing!)

Aug. 9 – two articles on the US supposedly unifying Iraqi opposition for the war.

Aug. 10 – an article on Israel building anti-missile weapons in case of an attack by Iraq.

Aug. 10 – straight stenography for Rumsfeld on Iraq's threat and WMD.

Aug. 11 – an article on Cheney assuring Iraqi opposition of US "resolve."

Aug 12 – an article on Republican senators supporting war.

Aug. 13 – a report on a poll that found that a majority of Americans favor war but want Congress to declare it. (Remember, it was supposedly old news weeks before this that Bush had decided to go to war and to lie about the justifications.)

Aug. 13 – an article on Spain asking for detailed war plans, and another headlined "Weapons Searches Rejected By Iraqis," which included as the last paragraph: "Iraq recently asked the UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix to visit for further discussions about resuming inspections. The Iraqi parliament also issued an invitation – quickly declined – to members of the US Congress for a fact-finding tour." (Of course, it's clear in retrospect that no facts needed finding after all. Remember, it was supposedly already public knowledge that Bush was "fixing" the facts.)

Aug. 13 – an article reporting without critical comment Bush asserting that he has no "imminent war plan."

Aug. 16 – Straight stenography for Condoleezza Rice on the "moral case" for a war.

Aug. 16 – an article on Iraq inviting inspectors again.


On Sunday, Aug. 18, 2002, the Washington Post ran an editorial, an ombudsman column, and three op-eds about a potential U.S. attack on Iraq, as well as three related articles. One article, placed on the top of the front page, reported on a memo that Rumsfeld had sent to the White House and the media. "Defense" officials were worried that countries such as Iraq or Iran could use cruise missile technology to attack "U.S. installations or the American homeland."

The article admitted that "no particular piece of new intelligence prompted the warning." What prompted the "reporting"?

The second Post article – by our good friend Dana Milbank -- on August 18 urged Bush to hurry up and argue for an attack on Iraq before opponents of such an attack raised their voices too loudly. The headline was, "White House Push for Iraqi Strike Is On Hold: Waiting to Make Case for Action Allows Invasion Opponents to Dominate Debate." While the article did touch on some of the opponents' arguments, it mainly focused on arguments about how best to persuade the American public and European politicians to support a war.

A third article was called "Rice Details the Case for War With Iraq." I think it merits quoting in full:

"The United States and other nations have little choice but to seek the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said. 'This is an evil man who, left to his own devices, will wreak havoc again on his own population, his neighbors and, if he gets weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them, on all of us,' Rice told the BBC. 'There is a very powerful moral case for regime change. We certainly do not have the luxury of doing nothing.'

"Rice's comments represent one of the strongest and most detailed explanations by a senior U.S. official of the need to oust Hussein. Rice's remarks do not appear to be part of a new campaign to convince U.S. allies or the American public that a war is necessary or inevitable. But they offer a clear guide to the case the administration will make if Bush decides to launch a war. 'The case for regime change is very strong,' Rice said. 'This is a regime that we know has twice tried and come closer than we thought at the time to acquiring nuclear weapons. He has used chemical weapons against his own people and against his neighbors, he has invaded his neighbors, he has killed thousands of his own people. He shoots at our planes, our airplanes, in the "no-fly" zones where we are trying to enforce U.N. security resolutions.' A day after Rice's remarks were released, Bush told reporters after a barbecue near his ranch in Crawford, Tex., that Hussein is 'thumbing his nose at the world' and poses a threat to his people and his neighbors. -- Glenn Kessler"

The Post's editorial on August 18 urged the White House to make its case for war, and advised it to do so on the grounds that Hussein had refused to get rid of weapons. Here's the last paragraph of the editorial:

"A preemptive war carries another danger: that it will seem to legitimize aggression by any stronger nation against a weaker regime in disfavor. It has long seemed to us that targeting the weapons of Saddam Hussein carries a legitimacy that other such attacks would not, because the U.N. Security Council more than a decade ago demanded that he rid himself of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, and he has refused to do so. That is also a case that the administration must make more persuasively."

The Post's ombudsman column on the same day was titled "Covering the War Before it Starts," and lamented the Post's biased coverage in favor of attacking Iraq. Unfortunately, this admirable observation was overshadowed by three much longer op-eds on the next page.

The best of them, David Broder's, questioned the accuracy of CIA information on Iraq, briefly mentioned a few concerns, and then joined the chorus urging Bush to make his case.

The worst of the op-eds -- which was placed at the top and center of the page and illustrated by a clenched fist with an Uncle Sam sleeve pounding on a map of Iraq -- was by former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. The title was "If We Must Fight…." It didn't call proponents of peace "assisters of terrorism," as a Post column did some months earlier, but it did assume there was no reason to work for peace.

The column contained only one sentence near the end on how to conduct the attack (minimize civilian casualties - not because they're human beings, but because of "the widespread view abroad that U.S.-sponsored sanctions have already badly and unfairly hurt the Iraqi population.") And it contained not a single sentence on how we might avoid being forced to fight. The title ought to have been "How We Can Do This Without Despising Ourselves."

Brzezinski laid out five steps that must be taken to reach that comforting result. First – joining the chorus - the President must articulate some sort of reason for attacking Iraq. Second, the reason he articulates must be that Hussein is producing weapons in defiance of the Security Council. (Brzezinski was good enough to add that Hussein did not use chemical weapons in the last war and that some reason must be provided to believe he would use them in the future). Third, the United States must take the lead in a new proposal for weapons inspections. Europe would support this, and Hussein would not, giving the United States a good excuse to attack. (Here we have Brzezinski plotting publicly as Blair was privately.) Fourth, the United States must work for peace between Israel and Palestine, so that an attack on Iraq is not viewed together with the U.S.-backed Israeli assaults on Palestinians - a combination bound to anger quite a lot of people. Fifth, the United States should plan to occupy Iraq after demolishing it.

The Post's final op-ed was by Charles "Liberals are Stupid" Krauthammer. He attacked the New York Times for allegedly biased coverage against attacking Iraq. Krauthammer was upset that the Times had covered some of the stories that the Post's ombudsman criticized the Post for not covering - including the expression of opposition to or concern about attacking Iraq on the part of various legislators and officials. Krauthammer was especially upset that the Times had allegedly called Henry Kissinger a war opponent. One of Kissinger's quotes was: "Military intervention should be attempted only if we are willing to sustain such an effort for however long it is needed." Clearly that is not opposition to a war, but a qualification - and probably a disingenuous one at that. Krauthammer replies: "But everyone knows that we will have to stay and help rebuild Iraq as a peaceful, nondictatorial state. Who says otherwise? Where is the break with Bush?"

But, of course, we all knew that Bush was not planning for the occupation, because that was public knowledge.

No comments:

Post a Comment