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Lost in Translation

While the U.S. media has been obsessing about Newsweek, “the nuclear option,” and Michael Jackson’s masturbatory habits, for the past two weeks, their UK counterparts have been up in arms over the so-called “Downing Street memo,” a leaked secret document that consists of the minutes of a meeting of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s senior national security team. The memo shows, without a shadow of a doubt, that the American and British governments had decided to invade Iraq in early 2002 – while lying to the public about their true intentions. Despite the flap in Britain, however, we’ve barely heard a squeak about this smoking gun on this side of the Atlantic=

The memo, written on July 23, 2002, notes up front that a British diplomat who had just returned from Washington told the meeting that:

There was a perceptible shift in attitude [in the Bush administration]. 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.

Astounding, to be sure, although anyone paying sufficient attention would surely know that as Bob Woodward reported last year in his book, Plan of Attack, planning for an assault on Iraq had begun in November 2001, after the president ordered Donald Rumsfeld to begin looking at military options in Iraq.

The memo continues, reporting that “[i]t seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.” Again, all of this has been reported (piecemeal, to be sure) on both sides of the Atlantic for the better part of two years. The difference this time is that we have official confirmation, at the highest levels of government, that the Bush administration was making it up as it went along, and was intent on manufacturing reasons for war in the face of evidence that showed Iraq was far less of a threat than other unfriendly regimes around the world.

While the story has been public for about three weeks now, the American print, Web and television media have systematically ignored it. Last week saw some movement in the right direction, though not nearly enough. The problem? The story was effectively buried on the back pages of the country’s biggest newspapers. On Friday the 13th, the Washington Post buried the story on page A18 while just a day before, the Los Angeles Times wedged its take on the issue on page A3. Finally, and perhaps most startlingly of all, the allegedly anti-war and anti-Bush New York Times has also taken a pass, with the exception of a Paul Krugman op-ed this past Monday.

Given that an uncontested document that shows without a doubt that the American and British governments plotted to invade Iraq well before they informed the public of their intentions has been made public, what of the “liberal media”? Doesn’t this have all the elements of being one of those Bush-bashing stories that conservative media critics never tire of complaining of? That the story should be page A1 above-the-fold news is beyond doubt, but the media continues to sit on their collective hands. Not only does the story contradict the official administration line that the invasion of Iraq was a “last resort”; it also directly contradicts many of the president’s own assertions about Iraq in the lead up to war. Take for example the issue of the timetable for war. While on August 10, 2002, the president said that he had “no timetable” for war, the memo states that the British defense secretary “thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.” What’s more, on March 8, 2003, the president was still claiming that “[w]e are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq,” even though as the memo shows, the decision to go to war had long since been made.

While the British government hasn’t contradicted any of the points in the memo, a “former senior U.S. official” told Newsday that the memo is "an absolutely accurate description of what transpired." Meanwhile, the White House has remained predictably mum.

In the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner deconstructs the memo in light of the diplomatic discourse of the moment, demonstrating both its import and the rest of the media’s shame in choosing to ignore it. Over 1,600 American deaths, thousands of wounded, tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, a rampaging civil war, and hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on a chimerical diversion from assuring America’s security from genuine terrorist threats, and somehow, the U.S. media has better things to worry about than how the nation and the world were tricked into this misadventure.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program….

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.