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    Middle East
     Jun 21, 2005
COMMENTARY
Smoking signposts
By Tom Engelhardt

Imagine that the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate scandal had broken out all over the press - no, not in the New York Times or the Washington Post, but in newspapers in Australia or Canada. And that, facing their own terrible record of reportage, of years of being cowed by the Richard Nixon administration, major American papers had decided this was not a story worthy of being covered.

Imagine that, initially, they dismissed the revelatory documents and information that came out of the heart of administration policymaking; then almost willfully misread them, insisting that evidence of Pentagon planning for escalation in Vietnam or of the Nixon administration planning to destroy its opponents was at best ambiguous or even non-existent. Finally, when they found that the documents wouldn't go away, they acknowledged them more formally with a tired ho-hum, a knowing nod on editorial pages or in news stories. Actually, they claimed, these documents didn't add up to much because they had run stories just like this back then themselves. Yawn.

This is, of course, something like the crude pattern that coverage in the American press has followed on the Downing Street memo, then memos. As of last week, four of our five major papers (the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and USA Today) hadn't even commented on them in their editorial pages. In my hometown paper, the New York Times, complete lack of interest was followed last Monday by a page 11 David Sanger piece ("Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn't Made") that focused on the second of the Downing Street memos, a briefing paper for Prime Minister Tony Blair's "inner circle", and began: "A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made 'no political decisions' to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced."

Compare that to the front-page lead written a day earlier by Michael Smith of the British Sunday Times, who revealed the existence of the document and has been the Bob Woodstein of England on this issue ("Ministers Were Told of Need for Gulf War Excuse"):
Ministers were warned in July 2002 that Britain was committed to taking part in an American-led invasion of Iraq and they had no choice but to find a way of making it legal. The warning, in a leaked Cabinet Office briefing paper, said Tony Blair had already agreed to back military action to get rid of Saddam Hussein at a summit at the Texas ranch of President George W Bush three months earlier.
The headlines the two papers chose more or less tell it all. It's hard to believe they are even reporting on the same document. Sanger was obviously capable of reading Smith's piece and yet his report makes no mention of the April meeting of the two leaders in Crawford explicitly noted in the memo and offers a completely tendentious reading of those supposedly unmade "political decisions". Read the document yourself. It's clear when the Brits write for instance, "[L]ittle thought has been given [in Washington] to creating the political conditions for military action," that they are talking about tactics, about how to move the rest of the world toward an already agreed-upon war. After all, though it's seldom commented on, this document was titled, "Cabinet Office Paper: Conditions for Military Action", and along with the previously released memo was essentially a war-planning document. Both, for instance, discuss the American need for British bases in Cyprus and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. It was, as well, focused on the creation of "an information campaign" and suggested that "[t]ime will be required to prepare public opinion in the UK that it is necessary to take military action against Saddam Hussein".

We are talking here about creating the right political preconditions for moving populations toward a war, quite a different matter from not having decided on the war. To write as if this piece reflected a situation in which no "political decisions" had been made (taking that phrase out of all context), without even a single caveat, a single mention of any alternative possible explanation, was bizarre, to say the least.

A day later, the New York Times weighed in with another piece. Written by Todd Purdum, and this time carefully labeled "news analysis", it was placed on page 10 and arrived practically exhausted. "But the memos," wrote the world-weary Purdum, "are not the Dead Sea Scrolls. There has been ample evidence for many months, and even years, that top Bush administration figures saw war as inevitable by the summer of 2002."

The Times editors at least had the decency to hide both their pieces deep inside the paper (and the paper remained editorially silent on the subject of the memos). The Washington Post did them one better. On its editorial page, its writers made Purdum look like the soul of cautious reason by publishing "Iraq, Then and Now", which had the following dismissal of the memos:
War opponents have been trumpeting several British government memos from July 2002, which describe the Bush administration's preparations for invasion, as revelatory of President Bush's deceptions about Iraq. Bloggers have demanded to know why "the mainstream media" have not paid more attention to them. Though we can't speak for The Post's news department, the answer appears obvious: The memos add not a single fact to what was previously known about the administration's prewar deliberations. Not only that: They add nothing to what was publicly known in July 2002.
Of course, the editorial writers might at least have pointed out that before March 2003 the Post editorial page, now so eager to tell us that we knew it all then, was generally beating the drums for war. If they knew it all then, they evidently couldn't have cared less that the administration's "prewar deliberations" bore remarkably little relationship to its prewar statements and claims. Nor did they bother to repeat another boringly obvious point - that the best of the Post's reporting on the subject of the administration's prewar deliberations from journalists like Walter Pincus had, in those prewar days, generally been consigned to the inside pages of the paper, while the administration's bogus claims about Iraq (which, they now imply, they knew perfectly well were bogus) were regularly front-paged.

Let's just add that if Post editorialists and Times journalists can't tell the difference between scattered, generally anonymously sourced, pre-war reports that told of early Bush administration preparations for war and actual documents on the same subject emerging from the highest reaches of the British government, from the highest intelligence figure in that government who had just met with some of the highest figures in the US government, and was immediately reporting back to what, in essence, was a "war cabinet" - well, what can you say?

To return to the Pentagon Papers and Watergate affair, long before news on the papers was broken in 1971 by the Times, you could certainly have pieced together - as many did - much about the nature of American war planning in Vietnam, just as long before the Watergate affair became recognizable itself (only months after the 1972 election), you could have read the lonely Woodstein pieces in the Post (and scattered pieces elsewhere) and had a reasonable sense of where the Nixon administration was going. But material from the horse's mouth, so to speak, directly from Pentagon documents or from Deep Throat himself, that was a very different matter, as is true with the Downing Street memos.

Let Sunday Times reporter Michael Smith - by his own admission, a British conservative and a supporter of the invasion of Iraq - explain this, as he did in a recent online chat at the Washington Post website, with a bluntness inconceivable for an American reporter considering the subject:
It is one thing for the New York Times or the Washington Post to say that we were being told that the intelligence was being fixed by sources inside the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] or Pentagon or the NSC [National Security Council] and quite another to have documentary confirmation in the form of the minutes of a key meeting with the Prime Minister's Office. Think of it this way, all the key players were there. This was the equivalent of an NSC meeting, with the president, [Pentagon chief] Donald Rumsfeld, [then secretary of state] Colin Powell, [then national security adviser] Condi Rice, [then CIA director] George Tenet, and [retired army General] Tommy Franks all there. They say the evidence against Saddam Hussein is thin, the Brits think regime change is illegal under international law so we are going to have to go to the UN to get an ultimatum, not as a way of averting war but as an excuse to make the war legal, and oh by the way, we aren't preparing for what happens after and no one has the faintest idea what Iraq will be like after a war. Not reportable, are you kidding me?
Similarly, on the line in the initial Downing Street memo that has been much hemmed and hawed about here - "But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" - Smith has this to say:
There are a number of people asking about fixed and its meaning. This is a real joke. I do not know anyone in the UK who took it to mean anything other than fixed as in fixed a race, fixed an election, fixed the intelligence. If you fix something, you make it the way you want it. The intelligence was fixed, and as for the reports that said this was one British official. Pleeeaaassee! This was the head of MI6 [the British equivalent of the CIA]. How much authority do you want the man to have? He has just been to Washington, he has just talked to George Tenet. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.
But does all of this even qualify as a news story today? For that you need a tad of context, so here in full is the president's response when, at a recent news conference with Blair, he was asked about that facts-being-fixed reference in the Downing Street memo:
President Bush: Well, I - you know, I read kind of the characterizations of the memo, particularly when they dropped it out in the middle of [Blair's election] race. I'm not sure who "they dropped it out" is, but - I'm not suggesting that you all dropped it out there. [Laughter.] And somebody said, well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam. There's nothing farther from the truth.

My conversation with the prime minister was, how could we do this peacefully, what could we do. And this meeting, evidently, that took place in London happened before we even went to the United Nations - or I went to the United Nations. And so it's - look, both us of didn't want to use our military. Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It's the last option. The consequences of committing the military are - are very difficult. The hardest things I do as the president is to try to comfort families who've lost a loved one in combat. It's the last option that the president must have - and it's the last option I know my friend had, as well. And so we worked hard to see if we could figure out how to do this peacefully, take a - put a united front up to Saddam Hussein, and say, the world speaks, and he ignored the world. Remember, [resolution] 1441 passed the Security Council unanimously. He made the decision. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power.
So even today, our president gets up and, in response to these memos, denies that he or Blair made a decision to go to war until the last second ("there's nothing farther from the truth"), something our papers are now saying we all knew wasn't so back when. So he lied then, and he lies today on this matter, and somehow this isn't considered a news story because somewhere, sometime, some reporters on some major papers actually published pieces contradicting him before the Downing Street documents themselves were written? The logic is fascinating. It is also shameful.

As ever, to hear this discussed in a blunt fashion, you have to repair to the Internet, where, at Salon, for instance, you can read Juan Cole writing in "The Revenge of Baghdad Bob":
Bush is trying to give the impression that his going to the United Nations showed his administration's good faith in trying to disarm Saddam by peaceful means. It does nothing of the sort. In fact, the memo contains key evidence that the entire UN strategy was a ploy, dreamed up by the British, to justify a war that Bush had decided to wage long ago ... The docile White House press corps, which until the press conference had never asked the president about the Downing Street memo, predictably neglected to press Bush and Blair on those issues, allowing them to get away with mere obfuscation and meaningless non-answers.
I swear, if the American equivalents of the Downing Street memos were to leak (as they will sooner or later), there would be stories all over the world, while our papers would be saying: no news there; we knew it all along. So how have the various memos defied a mainstream media consensus and over these weeks risen, almost despite themselves, into the news, made their way into Congress, onto television, into consciousness?

Well, for one thing, the political Internet simply wouldn't stop yammering about them. Long before they were discussed in print, they were already up and being analyzed at sites like the War in Context and Antiwar.com. So credit the blogosphere with this one, at least in part. But let's not create too heroic a tale of the Internet's influence to match the now vastly overblown tale of the role of the press in the Watergate affair. Part of the answer also involves a shift in the wind - the wind being, in the case of politics, falling polling figures for the president and Congress. Can't you feel it? The Bush administration seems somehow to be weakening.

The mainstream media can feel it, too, and weakness is irresistible. Before we're done, if we're not careful, we'll have a heroic tale of how the media saved us all from the Bush administration.

Sadly, the overall story of American press coverage of this administration and its Iraqi war has been a sorry one indeed, though there are distinct exceptions, one of which has been the work done by the Knight Ridder news service. Its reporters in Washington - Warren Strobel, John Wolcott and Jonathan Landay among others - seemed remarkably uncowed by the Bush administration at a time when others were treading lightly indeed. Even now, compare Strobel's recent piece published under the very un-American sounding headline "British Documents Portray Determined US March to War" with the reporting norm. It begins: "Highly classified documents leaked in Britain appear to provide new evidence that President Bush and his national security team decided to invade Iraq much earlier than they have acknowledged and marched to war without dwelling on the potential perils." As it happens, Knight Ridder doesn't have a flagship paper among the majors that would have highlighted its fine reporting, and so its work was essentially buried.

About a month ago, to accompany a forceful analysis by Mark Danner, the New York Review of Books become the first publication in this country to put the initial Downing Street memo in print (a striking act for a "review of books" and an indication of just how our major papers have let us down).

Tom Engelhardt is editor of Tomdispatch.com and the author of The End of Victory Culture.

(Copyright 2005 Tomdispatch)

(Published with permission of Tomdispatch.com)


Marching to (illegal) war (Jun 14, '05)

The secret way to war  (May 17, '05)

 
 



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