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January 08, 2006

NY Times: Downing Street Memo Background Is Too Good For The Likes Of Us

The relevant excerpts from State of War appear at the bottom of this post

Most of the attention given to James Risen's new book State of War has focused on Risen's reporting on warrantless spying by the NS—and how the New York Times didn't publish it until State of War was about to come out.

And of course that's important. But the book also contains critical new background on the Downing Street Memo. And incredibly enough, this information has NEVER been published by the New York Times.

As you recall, the Downing Street Memo is the official minutes to a meeting of the highest officials of the British government (including Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw) on July 23, 2002. Part of the memo describes a presentation by Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA:

C [Dearlove] reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. 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.

Therefore, one of the most important questions about the Downing Street Memo has always been who exactly Dearlove met with in Washington. This would go a long way to answering why Dearlove believed "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Pundits wishing to play down the significance of the memo, such as Michael Kinsley, opined that Dearlove may have just been talking to "the usual freelance chatterboxes" and perhaps was simply reporting on the "mood and gossip of 'Washington.'"

This isn't what Risen writes, to say the least. According to State of War:

• Dearlove was in part reporting on a CIA-MI6 summit he attended with other top MI6 officials at CIA headquarters on Saturday, July 20, 2002
• officials believe "Blair had ordered Dearlove to go to Washington to find out what the Bush administration was really thinking about Iraq"
• During the day-long summit, Dearlove met privately with CIA head George Tenet for an hour and a half

This obviously raises other questions, such as:

• What records of the meeting exist on the American side?
• Will the Senate Intelligence Committee examine the meeting and MI6's perspective as part of its Phase II Iraq intelligence investigation?
• What specifically did Dearlove and Tenet discuss when alone?

But the most puzzling issue may be this: what on earth makes the New York Times just sit on this kind of information? In fact, the NSA wiretapping story and this Downing Street Memo background is still only part of it. As various outlets have reported, State of War also reveals that the CIA sent thirty relatives of Iraqi scientists to Iraq to ask them whether they were working on WMD programs. Every single relative reported back that the scientists said they weren't, and that Iraq had nothing. Not a word of this has appeared in the Times.

And it doesn't seem to be because Risen wasn't trying. The New York Observer has reported that:

...according to current and former Times sources familiar with the Washington bureau, Mr. Risen was gathering reporting from sources in the prewar period that cast a skeptical light on Saddam Hussein's alleged W.M.D. stockpiles, but either couldn't get his stories in the paper or else found them buried on the inside pages.

In the end, it seems clear the New York Times subscribes to Katherine Graham's philosophy, famously expressed in a speech at the CIA:

We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know, and shouldn't. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.

From the Times' perspective, there are some things we members of the great unwashed simply don't need to know.

• • •

From State of War by James Risen, p. 112-114:

As the invasion of Iraq drew closer, an attitude took hold among many senior CIA officials that war was inevitable—and so the quality of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction didn't really matter. This attitude led CIA management to cut corners and accept shoddy intelligence, other CIA officials believe. "One of the senior guys in the NE Division [the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations] told me that it isn't going to matter once we go to Baghdad, we are going to find mountains of this stuff," recalled a former CIA official, who left the agency after the war. This acceptance of weak intelligence among senior CIA officials appears to be the backstory to the famous so-called Downing Street Memo.

According to a former senior CIA official, the memo—the leaked British government document from July 2002 that provided a British assessment of the Bush administration's plans for Iraq—was written immediately after a secret conference in Washington between top officials of the CIA and British intelligence. The memo, dated July 23, reported that "there was a perceptible shift in attitude" in Washington about Iraq. The memo went on to say that "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 memo reflected an assessment of the prevailing attitude inside the Bush administration offered to Prime Minister Tony Blair by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, the British intelligence service. Just days before, Dearlove and other top MI6 officials had attended a CIA-MI6 summit meeting held at CIA headquarters, in which the two sides had candid talks about both counterterrorism and Iraq. According to a former senior CIA officer, the summit meeting was held at the urgent request of the British.

The American and British intelligence services are so close that under normal circumstances, they hold an annual summit to discuss a wide range of issues in a relaxed setting. The year before it had been held in Bermuda. But after 9/11, Tenet had told other CIA officials he was too busy to be bothered with another conference with the British, particularly one held in a remote location. The British were very insistent, however, and kept pushing for the meeting, the former CIA official said. The MI6 officials made it very clear to their CIA counterparts that they had to sit down and talk immediately.

CIA officials believe that Prime Minister Blair had ordered Dearlove to go to Washington to find out what the Bush administration was really thinking about Iraq. While Blair was in constant communication with President Bush, he apparently wanted his intelligence chief to scout out the thinking of other senior officials in Washington, to give him a reality check on what he was hearing from the White House.

"I think in hindsight that it is clear that Dearlove was insistent on having the summit because Blair wanted him to find out what was going on," said the former CIA official.

Tenet finally agreed to the conference as long as it could be held at CIA headquarters, rather than out of town. The session was scheduled for Saturday, July 20, 2002.

The two sides ended up spending most of that Saturday together. One of Tenet's great attributes was his ability to develop warm relationships with the chiefs of allied intelligence services, and Tenet had an especially good personal relationship with Dearlove. He was usually very candid with his British counterpart.

During the Saturday summmit, Tenet and Dearlove left the larger meeting and went off by themselves for about an hour and a half, according to a former senior CIA official who attended the summit. It is unclear what Tenet and Dearlove discussed during their one-on-one session. Yet Dearlove's overall assessment was reflected in the Downing Street Memo: the CIA chief and other CIA officials didn't believe that the WMD intelligence mattered, because was was coming one way or another.

"I doubt that Tenet would have said that Bush was fixing the intelligence," said a former CIA official. "But I think Dearlove was a very smart intelligence officer who could figure out what was going on. Plus, the MI6 station chief in Washington was in CIA headquarters all the time, with just about complete access to everything, and I am sure he was talking to a lot of people."

Posted at January 8, 2006 03:19 PM | TrackBack

As Jack Abramoff would put it: the fix was in.

Posted by: Dolph Honicker at January 10, 2006 12:39 AM

Mistah Schwarz: tell me again: why does Fox News says the NY Times are a bunch of no-good liberals?

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at January 10, 2006 12:55 AM

why does Fox News says the NY Times are a bunch of no-good liberals?

Well, it's all a matter of perspective. From Hitler's point of view, Fox News is a bunch of no-good liberals.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 10, 2006 07:59 AM

I wonder what can one make of this article "Stuff and Nonsense" by Gordon Prather at
which basically treats Risen to be a neocrazy in these words:
"So Risen joins Judith Miller in "reporting" neo-crazy misinformation – in complete disregard of the reports of IAEA experts – on the front pages of the New York Times. Gray Lady, indeed."

Posted by: Jangi Kedi at January 13, 2006 06:54 AM