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Recalling the Downing Street Minutes
24 July 2009
Seven years ago this week, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair gathered his top national security advisers at 10 Downing St. to hear a report from U.K. intelligence chief Richard Dearlove, just back in London from face-to-face talks with then-CIA Director George Tenet in Washington.
Blair and President George W. Bush had been talking regularly by telephone for several months. But, as is well known, even the most secure phones can be tapped, and there are some things — like preparing criminal wars of aggression, I suppose — that are so outrageous one doesn’t dare take any chances.
Besides, Blair apparently had some misgivings about taking at face value the Texas-size braggadocio he was hearing at the other end of the phone about what was going to happen to Saddam Hussein and why. It is understandable that he would seek independent, authoritative confirmation that this was also what Bush was sharing with his top accomplices.
Who better to confirm or deny than Bush-vassal Tenet, who met six mornings a week with the American president to discuss the President’s Daily Brief?
Blair prevailed on a reluctant Tenet to host a visit from Dearlove on Saturday, July 20, 2002. Blair had seen enough of the garrulous Tenet in action to be able to calculate — correctly — that once you got him talking about secrets he was privileged to know about, kernels of truth could be gleaned from beneath all the usual bull. Documentary evidence now shows that the Dearlove dug out some remarkable kernels.
Matthew Rycroft, aide to Blair foreign policy guru David Manning, was taking minutes at the Downing Street meeting on July 23, 2002, minutes he immediately circulated to Blair and other participants. The minutes observed quite bluntly that “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.”
Enter an unknown patriotic truth-teller who eventually gave a copy of those minutes to London’s Sunday Times which, after performing due diligence regarding their provenance, published them on May 1, 2005. Blair himself has been careful not to dispute the authenticity of what then became known as the “Downing Street Minutes.”
We Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity also performed due diligence and were first off the mark with “Proof Bush Fixed the Facts,” May 4, 2005.
Too Late the Leak
The Downing Street Minutes represent the kind of documentary evidence after which trial lawyers, intelligence analysts – and serious investigative journalists – lust.
Though the unauthorized disclosure did not come early enough to head off the war, which had started more than two years before the document surfaced, the unique disclosure could have thrown some harsh light on the war’s origins — IF the Fawning Corporate Media in the United States did its job.
However, having been acrobatic cheerleaders for war on Iraq, the FCM did its level best to suppress this documentary evidence of the war’s fraudulent character.
Enter John Conyers, bless his heart, who was House Judiciary Committee ranking member at the time. Sadly, it is necessary to reach back four years to find the last thing Conyers did that took any courage, but one must give the timid please-don’t-say-impeach-in-my-presence Conyers his due with regard to the Downing Street Minutes.
(Full disclosure: Conyers had me arrested on July 23, 2007 — the five-year anniversary of the plotting at 10 Downing St. — when I would not leave his office until he agreed to do his duty under the Constitution to launch hearings on impeachment.
I stressed that, like him, I had sworn an oath – in my case as an Army officer – to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States; that my oath carried no expiration date; and that it was the Constitution that I was trying to protect and defend.
Unimpressed, Conyers called the Capitol police. I was quickly marched out of the Rayburn building off to jail, and later convicted of unlawful assembly. I would add only that, while we Irish are notorious for bearing grudges, I continue to believe — strongly — that Conyers’ inaction did grave damage to our Constitution by shirking his duty to start the orderly process called impeachment that the Founders intended for use in removing a president who thought he could act like a king.)
With respect to the Downing Street Minutes, though, Conyers did manage a temporary fit of courage. Readers may recall that he scheduled a “hearing” for June 16, 2005, in the only space the Republican majority would make available — a basement room under the Capitol.
On the morning before the hearing, Amy Goodman invited Conyers and me to be interviewed on Democracy Now. Just before the interview, I had a chance to look at the editorial page of Pravda, er, I mean the Washington Post, for that morning, and guess what? The Post saw fit to mention the Downing Street Minutes, though dismissively so as not to tarnish the newspaper’s glorious cheerleading for war.
“The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s prewar deliberations,” the Post’s editors wrote, explaining why the leading newspaper of Washington had largely ignored the contents of the British documents. “Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.”
I just now downloaded the Democracy Now transcript of my comments that morning, and was happy to see that I managed to suppress — sort of — the anger seething inside me (although my wife tells me some of it broke through). I beg readers’ indulgence:
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, as we talk about the Downing Street Memo, a hearing being held on this issue by Congress Member John Conyers in Congress tomorrow. Congress Member Conyers joins us in Washington, along with former C.I.A. analyst, Ray McGovern. Ray McGovern, can you talk about what is most explosive about both, what is being called the Downing Street Memo, that talks about fixing the facts and intelligence around the policy, and this latest exposé of the Sunday Times of London, showing British cabinet members were warned that Britain was committed to taking part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and they had no choice but to find a way to make it legal?
RAY McGOVERN: Well, Amy, we Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity had been saying for three years that the intelligence and the facts were being fixed to support an unnecessary war. We never in our wildest dreams expected to have documentary proof of that under a SECRET label: “SECRET: U.K. EYES ONLY” in a most sensitive document reserved just for cabinet officials in the Blair government. And so, what we have now is documentary proof that, as that sentence reads, the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.
The Washington Post this morning is still at it. They quote that sentence, and they say, “Well, this is vague, but intriguing.” Well, there’s nothing vague about that at all, and it’s not at all intriguing. It’s highly depressing. Now, we veteran professionals, we professionals that toil long and hard in the intelligence arena are outraged at the corruption of our profession, but we are even more outraged by the constitutional implications here because as Congressman Conyers has just pointed out, we have here a very clear case that the Executive usurped the prerogatives of Congress of the American people and deceived it into permitting, authorizing an unauthorizeable war.
And, you know, when you get back to how our Constitution was framed by those English folks that were used to kings marching them off to the war blithely, for their own good, of course, those framers of our Constitution were hell-bent and determined, and wrote into the very first Article of our Constitution, that the power to make or authorize war would be reserved to the representatives of people in the Congress, not in the Executive. And so, for that usurpation to happen, that is a constitutional issue, and we’re even more outraged by that. ...
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Michigan Congress Member John Conyers who is holding a hearing on the Downing Street Memo tomorrow, and has won a small victory. It will actually be able to be held in Congress. Ray McGovern also with us, a long-time C.I.A. analyst for more than a quarter century, a top briefer for former Vice President George H.W. Bush. I wanted to ask you about Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, who had said that there were no weapons of mass destruction, cited by western officials, U.S. officials, for many other reasons, but they never brought up that issue. Can you talk about the significance of this?
RAY McGOVERN: Yes. This gentleman’s name was Hussein Kamel. He was one of Saddam Hussein’s sons-in-law. And he defected in 1995 and was thoroughly debriefed by U.N. and U.S. and U.K. debriefers. He had quite a story to tell, because he was head of the missile, chemical, biological and nuclear programs in Iraq. And he was able to finger some of the things that the U.N. inspectors did not know, and what he told them turned out to be quite right. He also told them that the chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs and weapons were destroyed at his order in July of 1991, right after the Gulf War. That’s in black and white. It’s in the debriefing report. An enterprising British researcher went to Vienna. I don’t know how he got access to the debriefing report, but he did, and he found out that Kamel also said, as I said, that all those weapons were destroyed at his order. Of course, he was in charge.
Now, curiously enough, that seemed to escape our leaders. It was never cited, although Hussein Kamel himself was held up as the paragon of a reliable source. Dick Cheney, himself, in his major speech of 26 August 2002, held Hussein’s son-in-law as one of our most lucrative, reliable sources, but he never told us that this source, this wonderful source, also told us that all those weapons had been destroyed in July of 1991 at his order. Now, there’s no excuse for them not knowing that. It may have slipped in a crack between the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., I suppose, but it also appeared in Newsweek four weeks before the war. Four weeks before the war, the report that Hussein Kamel, their paragon source, had said all those weapons had been destroyed. Now, the C.I.A and the spokesmen there and all of the other spokesmen in government said this was ludicrous, this was false; besides, it’s untrue and everything else. And they came down real hard on it.
Guess what our domesticated press did with that. No more story on that, because they were all cheerleading for the war. And I’ll just make one more point about our domesticated press. The Washington Post today in this lead editorial says that these memos were not given much play in the press because, (quote), “They do not add a single fact to what was previously known about the administration’s pre-war deliberations.” Now, if The Washington Post knew that as of 23 July 2002, the president had, in the British words, inevitably decided on war, if they knew that the president intended to use as justification the conjunction between terrorism and so-called weapons of mass destruction, and if they knew that the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy, you know, they really ought to — they surely should have told us that, The Washington Post should have.
It’s really ludicrous. It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious a situation. Because what needs to happen here is you have a start-up newspaper in Washington called The Washington Spark, okay? Now, on the 11th of May, they carried the whole story, including the memo itself. Right here. Now, that hasn’t appeared in The Washington Times or The Washington Post, but here in The Washington Spark, new start-up paper, just days after the memo, it’s there. So it’s possible there’s some kind of a rule against publishing things that are so critically damaging of our president, and the editorial in the Post today is Exhibit A.
When the Conyers hearing was held on June 16, 2005, the witnesses included Gold Star mother and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, former U.S. Ambassador Joe Wilson, constitutional lawyer John Bonifaz, and me together as panelists. (My prepared remarks can be seen at “June 16 Testimony of Ray McGovern.”)
The room was more than somewhat cramped, but half the space was allotted for the TV cameras — including C-SPAN, which carried the proceedings live.
Fitting with its dismissive attitude toward the Downing Street disclosures, the Post sent satirical columnist Dana Milbank to cover the hearing and his article the next day dripped with sarcasm.
“In the Capitol basement yesterday, long-suffering House Democrats took a trip to the land of make-believe,” Milbank wrote. “They pretended a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room, draping white linens over folding tables to make them look like witness tables and bringing in cardboard name tags and extra flags to make the whole thing look official.”
Milbank also took some cheap shots at Conyers, who – Milbank wrote – “banged a large wooden gavel and got the other lawmakers to call him ‘Mr. Chairman.’” [For the article’s full flavor, see the Washington Post’s “Democrats Play House To Rally Against the War,” June 17, 2005]
Now seven years after the Downing Street Minutes were written – and more than four years after their disclosure – they remain one of the most damning pieces of evidence against both the Bush administration for its criminal deceptions in leading the nation to war and the FCM for its complicity in hiding the truth from the American people.
As philosopher George Santayana wisely observed a century ago, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He is a 27-year veteran analyst of the CIA and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on July 14, 2009.