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The Secret 23 July 2002 Downing Street Memo - Key Quotes And Commentary

The full text of this top secret memo is here on the JNV site, taken from the Sunday Times, 1 May 2005.

The meeting on 23 July 2002 involved the major decision-makers in the drive to war: Tony Blair; Geoff Hoon (Defence Secretary); Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary); the Government's legal adviser Lord Goldsmith (the Attorney General); the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee (the top level of British intelligence) John Scarlett; Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA), referred to as 'C'; David Manning, Tony Blair's Foreign Policy Adviser (equivalent to the US National Security Advisor); Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS); Jonathan Powell, head of staff at Number 10; and Alistair Campbell, then director of strategy.

The minutes were drawn up for David Manning by his assistant, Matthew Rycroft.

 

Key Quotes:

 

INTELLIGENCE BEING FIXED AROUND THE POLICY

'C', the head of MI6, the British equivalent of the CIA, said that after visting Washington, 'Military action was now seen as inevitable.'

He went on 'Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD.'

The intelligence chief remarked that in the US, 'the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.'

 

IRAQ NOT A THREAT

Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, said, 'the case was thin': 'Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.'

 

USING THE INSPECTORS

Straw continued: 'We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors.' Why? 'This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.'

Tony Blair emphasised this: 'The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.'

 

REGIME CHANGE

The Attorney General 'said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action.'

Tony Blair countered that 'Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD.'

He added: 'If the political context were right, people would support regime change.'

 

WAR IS INEVITABLE - JULY 2002

In the conclusions of the meeting, it was minuted that, 'We should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action.'

Tony Blair said, on 23 July 2002, 'The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.'

 

Commentary

 

INEVITABILITY

The key issue was not how the world could disarm Iraq - either by inspections or by war. The key issues were whether the war plan would work, and if the 'political context' could be created in which the public would 'support regime change' and give the military 'the space to work'.

The day after this meeting concluded that 'the UK would take part in any military action', Tony Blair said in the House of Commons, 'We have not got to the stage of military action. If we do get to that stage, at any point in time, we will, of course, make sure that Parliament is properly consulted (col 975)... we have not yet reached the point of decision (col 980).'

 

USING THE INSPECTORS

War was certain. It was just a matter of shaping public opinion, and drawing up good plans for battle.

In this strategy, the inspectors would be a critical tool - not a tool for disarmament, but a tool for public relations.

 

INSPECTIONS: THE WHITE HOUSE NIGHTMARE

The US/UK strategy of using the inspectors as a device was already clear in July 2002. We pointed out in Briefing 19 that, in the White House, UN weapons inspectors were seen as a potential problem rather than a solution:

‘Key figures in the White House believe that demands on Saddam to re-admit United Nations weapons inspectors should be set so high that he would fail to meet them unless he provided officials with total freedom.’ (Times, 16 February 2002, p. 19)

A US intelligence official has said the White House ‘will not take yes for an answer’. (Guardian, 14 February 2002, p. 1)

Seymour Hersh, the noted US investigative reporter wrote in December 2001: ‘Inside the Administration, there is general consensus on one issue, officials told me: there will be no further effort to revive the UN inspection regime withdrawn in late 1998’. (New Yorker, 24 December 2001, p. 63)

According to one former US official, ‘The hawks’ nightmare is that inspectors will be admitted, will not be terribly vigorous and not find anything. Economic sanctions would be eased, and the U.S. will be unable to act... and the closer it comes to the 2004 elections the more difficult it will be to take the military route.’ (Washington Post, 15 April 2002, p. A01)

'The more hawkish members of the US defence department are said to favour direct military action on Iraq, which would be more difficult if weapons inspectors were on the ground.' (FT, 5 March 2002, p. 10)

US Secretary of State Colin Powell (allegedly a 'dove') made it clear that the the inspectors were irrelevant: ‘US policy is that, regardless of what the inspectors do, the people of Iraq and the people of the region would be better off with a different regime in Baghdad. The United States reserves its option to do whatever it believes might be appropriate to see if there can be a regime change.’ The issue of the inspectors was a ‘separate and distinct and different’ matter from the US position on Saddam Hussein’s leadership, said Powell. (Guardian, 6 May 2002)

The ‘principals’ in the Bush Administration ‘fear that Saddam is working his own UN angle for the return of weapons inspectors to Iraq, whose presence could make the US look like a bully if it invades.’ ‘"The White House’s biggest fear is that UN weapons inspectors will be allowed to go in," says a top Senate foreign policy aide.’ (Time magazine, 13 May 2002, p. 38)

 

REFUSING INSPECTIONS - MARCH 2002

That is why, when on 1 March 2002, Baghdad invited Britain to send weapons inspectors to Iraq, Britain refused the offer.

'Iraq is ready to receive right now any British team sent by Blair and accompanied by the British media to show the world where and how is Iraq developing such weapons,’ said an unidentified Iraqi spokesperson in the official al-Thawra newspaper.' (Associated Press, 1 March 2002)

This news wire report was ignored by the Government, and by the media, apart from a buried note (Independent, 4 March 2002, p. 2) and a one-line reference in a Times editorial (8 March 2002). As we commented at the time, 'Such offers should be explored, not ignored.'

 

REFUSING INSPECTIONS - SEPTEMBER 2002

When Iraq did unconditionally accept the re-entry of UN weapons inspectors six months later, the United States was shocked and dismayed.

The Independent's Rupert Cornwell wrote that 'emerging as the key issue of the Iraq crisis' was the US 'insistence that United Nations inspectors cannot return until the UN has passed a stern new resolution spelling out the consequences if Baghdad fails to cooperate'.

'In a thinly-veiled threat, the Secretary of State Colin Powell, regarded as the spokesman of the moderates within the Bush administration bluntly told a Congressional committee that the US would prevent the inspectors return unless they were armed with a resolution spelling out the consequences if Iraq did not grant them full and unfettered access to all suspect sites. (Independent, 21 September 2002, p. 11)

Colin Powell told the Congressional committee, 'There is standing authority for the inspection team but there are weaknesses in that authority which make the current regime unacceptable. And we need a new resolution to clean that up and put new conditions on the Iraqis so that there is no wriggling out . . . if somebody tried to move the [inspectors'] team in right now, we would find ways to thwart that.' (Telegraph, 21 September 2002, p. 20)

 

IRAQ REFUSES TO REFUSE

Tony Blair has sought to defend himself by saying on 1 May 2005, 'The idea that we had decided definitively for military action at that stage is wrong, and disproved by the fact that several months later we went back to the UN to get a final resolution, and actually the conflict didn't begin until four months after that.'

But the US and UK only went to the Security Council for what turned out to be Resolution 1441 after Iraq had accepted the weapons inspectors' return, and the purpose of this maneouvre was to prevent the immediate entry of inspector to Iraq, and to 'put new conditions on the Iraqis' (Colin Powell).

The new Resolution was not pursued because the US and UK would only go to war with the authority of the UN. The new Resolution sought in the hopes that something could be crafted that would look reasonable to the outside world, but which would be so objectionable that it would be rejected by Iraq.

With much tougher inspection rights and with strong language 'spelling out the consequences if Baghdad failed to cooperate', the new Resolution was supposed to push the Iraqis into refusing to admit the inspectors. The new rights of inspection were supposed to be so objectionable that Baghdad would refuse to permit the inspectors to return (ideally), or would fail to abide by the letter of the Resolution (the fall-back position); and the 'consequences' in the Resolution could then be applied (in other words, war).

The Resolution was designed to be refused.

This strategy had its British roots in the July 2002 meeting, when Jack Straw said: 'We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors.' And Tony Blair added 'that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.'

But Iraq refused to refuse the inspectors, and Hans Blix and his colleagues were able to do valuable work. They were well on the way to discovering that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction (the ultimate White House nightmare scenario) when they were ordered out of the country on 17 March 2003.

 

CONCLUSION

The July 2002 memo confirms what was long known:

that the British Government had decided on war by mid-2002;

that the evidence and intelligence was 'fixed around the policy' rather than the evidence determining the policy;

that dislodging Saddam Hussein (misleadingly referred to as 'regime change') rather than disarmament was the key goal from the very beginning;

that UN inspectors were seen from the outset as a public relations device rather than as a means of disarmament;

that Britain (and the US) were trying to create a situation in which Baghdad would refuse to re-admit the inspectors, in order to create a political and legal justification for a war they were already committed to for other reasons;

that Tony Blair and his ministers lied through their teeth.