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Media's Shameful Non-Coverage Of Downing Street Memo

by Joe Conason

on the Downing Street memo and the press

With a strange zeal, important members of the Washington press corps have tried in recent weeks to discredit or dismiss the so-called Downing Street memo. Somehow the revelations in that classified document, which records the minutes of a crucial meeting of the British security cabinet on July 23, 2002, have proved as embarrassing to leading American journalists as to Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W. Bush.

That must be why such august publications as The Washington Post and The New York Times, as well as their mimics on television and radio, have been telling the rest of us "move along, there's no news here." Considering the contents of the Downing Street memo, however, that is truly an astonishing assertion.

Certainly the secret minutes of a discussion about invading Iraq, among the highest-ranking officials of our closest ally, qualify as "news." (Those present at the meeting in Blair's offices included the defense minister, the foreign minister, the attorney general and the intelligence chief.) And when such a document shows that the president of the United States misled the world about war, it qualifies as page-one news -- as The Sunday Times of London acknowledged when the story broke on its front page on May 1.

The memo's most telling lines are attributed to Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, who in spy jargon is to be referred to only as "C." He had returned from meetings in Washington with then-CIA Director George Tenet with several troubling observations:

"C reported on his recent talks in Washington . . . 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. . . . There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

For his part, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed the intelligence chief's assessment:

"It 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."

The prominent journalists who now insist that the Downing Street memo isn't news claim that "everyone already knew" the Bush administration had manipulated information to justify pre-emptive war on Iraq. "Everyone knew" that the president always intended to go to war -- no matter what he told the American people, the Congress and the United Nations.

But everyone didn't know, and that kind of elitist misjudgment is precisely why most Americans no longer trust the media. Once the memo was leaked, the job of journalists in Washington and London was simple: determine whether the document is authentic, report and analyze its contents, and then seek explanations.

Neither Blair nor any other British official has ever denied that the memo is real, so the journalistic failure is especially disgraceful. It is worth noting, however, that many newspapers and news services based outside the Beltway, in the heartland and even in staunchly conservative communities, displayed greater professionalism and better judgment covering this story than the major national papers.

Perhaps the nation's leading journalists ignored the Downing Street memo because it reminds us how poorly they performed during the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, when the mainstream media credulously accepted administration claims about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's non-existent arsenal of mass destruction. That British memo contains the proof that our press corps blew a big story of government incompetence and deception -- with a cost to date of 1,700 American lives, countless Iraqi lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.

The president dismissed the entire matter with a wisecrack, and those tough, fearless reporters chortled along with him. Under the grim circumstances of unending war, their shared sense of humor may seem odd -- but of course, the joke is on us.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor June 23, 2005 (

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