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The Memo Springs to Life

Part of a Series

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

On Wednesday afternoon, Rep. John Conyers Jr., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, held his own set of hearings on the "Downing Street Memo" and other evidence pointing to the conclusion that the Bush and Blair administrations cooked the books on pre-war intelligence in Iraq.

Later the same day, at Lafayette Square Park in front of the White House, activists held a rally to call attention to the memo and the fact that Conyers plans to deliver to the White House a letter signed by over 500,000 Americans and more than 90 members of Congress asking the president to respond to questions raised by the memo.

The memo, as has now been reported on the back pages of various newspapers, consists of the notes from a meeting of Tony Blair's senior national security team on July 23, 2002, in which Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, Britain's secret intelligence service, just back from meetings with American officials in Washington, recounts his impressions of the Bush administration's intentions to go to war with Iraq.

After the Sunday Times of London wrote about the secret memo and published it in its May 2 edition, the American media virtually ignored its existence for weeks. Knight Ridder, to its credit, was the first domestic source to jump on the story, sending a story out on the wires on May 6 exploring the implications of the memo's contents both domestically and for the Blair government, which was days away from a national election.

In contrast to Knight Ridder's quick work, as Salon's Eric Boehlert reported on Tuesday, the Associated Press wasn't nearly as serious about reporting anything on the story.

Deborah Seward, AP's international editor, told Boehlert that the AP "dropped the ball" in failing to pick up the story, while AP's deputy international editor, Nick Tatro, told him, "It was our intent to do a story, and it just didn't happen," for a variety of reasons. In a sad display of passing the buck, several newspaper editors and public editors Boehlert spoke to blamed their own lack of coverage of the story on the AP's failing, since AP wire stories drive much of the international coverage in American newspapers.

Speaking of making excuses for not covering a story, last week the Washington Post's Dana Milbank made the case that the American media has largely ignored the story because the idea that Bush was bent on invasion had already been reported in books by Paul O'Neill and Bob Woodward. He's right – although he forgets Richard Clark also reported this in his book – but where is it written that just because part of a story has already been told, reporters are excused from writing about emerging evidence?

USA Today also offered a lame excuse for not reporting the story before last week, writing that other major media outlets, "including the evening news programs on ABC, CBS and NBC, had not said a word about the document before Tuesday."

These excuses come on the heels of many of these very same newspapers apologizing for "dropping the ball" on their coverage of the run-up to war in Iraq. Just as most people didn't seem to care too much about their mea culpas back then, their most recent failure has also been met with a yawn by the public at large. In a way, this latest breakdown in the newsgathering process goes back to what I wrote last week in this space about the shoddy job many American news outlets do in covering international issues. If domestic newspapers and news wire services had a broader or better-staffed network of international bureaus, they wouldn't have to rely on wire reports to govern their coverage – and they might actually be able to break some critical stories.

But even when papers decided to report the story, they showed some suspect reasoning in their coverage. Case in point is Monday's New York Times, when the paper of record focused on the wrong issue. Writing that a second memo, which was written before the Downing Street document (and which The Sunday Times of London and the Washington Post scooped them on), showed that "the Bush administration had made 'no political decisions' to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced," the Times only told half of the story.

The Times' report omits entirely a section of the second memo which raises serious concerns that the British government had about the legality of going to war. Reading further, we find that the memo says, "Regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law." What's more, The Sunday Times found that the briefing paper said that since regime change was illegal it was "necessary to create the conditions" which would make it legal.

For reasons that are hard to imagine, the New York Times didn't find this quite as newsworthy as the assertion that Washington had made "no political decision" to go to war. Of course, as Bob Woodward, Paul O'Neill and Richard Clark, among others, have pointed out time and again, the administration was drawing up war plans back in November 2001.

In the end, it's fair to say that the memos don't tell us anything we didn't already know – although they do confirm many suspicions. Among them are that the British actually thought through the legal implications of invading Iraq, while the Bush administration snubbed its nose at the world body. They also show, at least as much as other evidence has, that the administration behaved incredibly irresponsibly in failing to plan adequately for the war's aftermath – a failure for which thousands of soldiers have paid with their lives and their limbs.

What's worth noting, additionally, is the absence of any similar documents domestically. Surely the Bush administration produces documents and American reporters have contacts on the inside. Where is our "Deep Throat," now that he is so desperately needed? And where are our Woodwards and Bernsteins?

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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