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Slate's War Stories: Reading the 'Downing St. Memo'

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Congressional Democrats today are holding a forum on what's known as the Downing Street Memo. This is a document released last month in a British newspaper that contains the minutes of a British ministerial meeting back in July of 2002. Some people say this is proof that the Bush administration was determined to go to war with Iraq back then regardless of the evidence. Others say it's not nearly that. Here to help us sort through what we've learned about the memo in recent days is Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for our partners at the online magazine, Slate and he has a column on this that's going up today.

Fred, first of all, we're talking more that about just one memo in this Downing Street Memo thing, aren't we?

FRED KAPLAN (Slate): Right. There's--there are about seven or eight. There's the original memo, which was printed in the Sunday Times of London on May Day of this year, and then there was a second memo, just published last weekend by The London Times, and then there are a slew of five or six personal memos to Tony Blair, options papers discussed within the government, just consi--you know, recountings of meetings with Condi Rice, just considering the complexity of issues involved.

CHADWICK: All right, in terms of the politics of this, as you say, this memo was published on the 1st of May. Many critics say the mainstream media in this country has ignored this story and should not have because of a couple of key lines in this memo at this British ministerial meeting. And here they are. This is a senior British intelligence official reporting on his recent talks in Washington. He says, `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.' What the critics are saying is this proves that in July of 2002, long before the war started, that Mr. Bush was absolutely determined to go to war with Saddam. How do you read it?

KAPLAN: Right. I think that's right. It's worth noting, this wasn't merely a senior British intelligence official. This was the director of MI6, which is their equivalent of the CIA. And he said, you know, this is what was going on. I think, though, the original rationale that many editors had for not paying much attention to this was, `Well, we've heard this before. We saw it in Paul O'Neill's book and Woodward's book and an article by Seymour Hersh.' But you know, when the big books are written about this, the historians are going to want to look at primary-source documents. Well, here is a primary-source document right before us, you know, 20 years ahead of schedule. It's going to be a key footnote in the history books. I think it should have been a major headline in, you know, what they call history's first draft, namely that--you know, the daily dispatches of major newspapers.

CHADWICK: But then later on in your column you sort of assess these memos and come up and say the Bush administration really doesn't look bad on this. They were not lying about anything.

KAPLAN: Well, I think some of the critics have gone too far. There is this notion that the Bush people and the British officials lied. That is to say, they knew that the intelligence was nonsense. They were fixing intelligence. There is nothing that indicated Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. When, in fact, a lot of evidence, both within these memos and in other realms, tells me that, actually, they believed their own propaganda on this. It was--there was a columnist who once walked out of a Mafia trial and said, `They're framing a guilty man in there.' In other words, the prosecutors knew the guy was guilty and they were trumping up things and twisting things a bit to get them there. I think that's what was going on.

But you look at several of the British memos. They talk about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction. It is such a pervasive part of these memos that they're not even arguing about it. There is an assumption that they had them. If you want to understand how governments work--if you want to see them as villains on a Monopoly board who sit around conniving and licking their lips, fine, then say that it was fixed. If you want to see how mistakes are made, how assumptions can harden into dogma, then that's what these memos are useful for.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Fred Kaplan, a military affairs columnist for our partners at the online magazine Slate.

Fred, thanks again.

KAPLAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.
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