The Memo That Won't Quit

By Dan Froomkin
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 17, 2005; 12:27 PM

Some two weeks after it was first leaked in London, a British memo about the run-up to war in Iraq is finally generating a serious amount of attention from the American media.

The memo, which is the report of a high-level meeting in July 2002, contains the assertion that the Bush White House was set on invading Iraq long before it was ready to say so publicly, and that it was in fact "fixing" the intelligence around its policy goals.

Yesterday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked about the memo and weighed in with a passionate but generic denial. And this week's New York Review of Books is out with an exegesis of the memo, sure to incite the intellectual left.

The liberal blogosphere has been insisting that the memo comprises a "smoking gun" -- which, of course, it doesn't. It's basically hearsay, albeit high-level hearsay.

But while that's not enough to convict, it's certainly enough to cause the press to revisit the issue.

Here's Brian Todd telling Wolf Blitzer yesterday that CNN asked White House press secretary Scott McClellan for his reaction.

McClellan's response: "I don't know about the specific memo. I've seen the reports, and I can tell you that they're just flat out wrong. The president of the United States in a very public way reached out to people across the world, went to the United Nations, and tried to resolve this in a diplomatic manner."

In the Chicago Tribune, Stephen J. Hedges and Mark Silva have this quote from McClellan: "Anyone who wants to know how the intelligence was used only has to go back and read everything that was said in public about the lead-up to the war."

I think we should take that challenge.

Hedges and Silva write that the memo's "potentially explosive revelation has proven to be something of a dud in the United States. The White House has denied the premise of the memo, the American media have reacted slowly to it and the public generally seems indifferent to the issue or unwilling to rehash the bitter prewar debate over the reasons for the war."

But it's possible it's less a dud than a bomb with a long, slow fuse.

In the New York Review of Book story, currently available on the alternet.org and Tomdispatch.com Web sites, author and Bush critic Mark Danner writes that the memo shows "that even as President Bush told Americans in October 2002 that he 'hoped the use of force will not become necessary' . . . the President had in fact already definitively decided, at least three months before, to choose this 'last resort' of going 'into battle' with Iraq. Whatever the Iraqis chose to do or not do, the President's decision to go to war had long since been made."

The memo doesn't come entirely out of context. For instance, as Danner writes: "We have long known, thanks to Bob Woodward and others, that military planning for the Iraq war began as early as November 21, 2001."

Similarly: "As Woodward recounts, it would finally take a personal visit by Blair on September 7 to persuade President Bush to go to the United Nations."

And there was that perplexing Catch-22 that Bush presented the public, saying that if Saddam Hussein were to produce some weapons of mass destruction at the last minute, that meant he had them, and if he didn't, that meant he was hiding them.

Walter Pincus weighed in with a story on page A18 of The Washington Post last Friday. He noted: "Although critics of the Iraq war have accused Bush and his top aides of misusing what has since been shown as limited intelligence in the prewar period, Bush's critics have been unsuccessful in getting an investigation of that matter."

And Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler wrote on Sunday about the relative paucity of coverage thus far: "The New York Times, alertly, did a story right away from London on May 2, including some of the language from the memo and some reaction from Blair. The Knight Ridder news service distributed a story from Washington on May 6 putting the memo in the context of what official Washington had been saying at the time in 2002. It also quoted an unnamed 'former senior U.S. official' as describing the account of the senior British intelligence officer's visit to Washington as 'an absolutely accurate description of what transpired.' Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times also contributed an article prepared in London and Washington headlined 'Indignation Grows in U.S. Over British Prewar Document.' None of these stories were on the front page. Even though it was late, The Post should have broken that pattern.

"How significant this memo may turn out to be is still to be determined. But the reaction to the failure to cover it, even with the hyperbole and worst assumptions about journalistic motives by some of the e-mailers, is understandable. It is a reminder of how powerfully the circumstances leading up to this war still reverberate within a sizable chunk of the population and why the press should not let go of any loose ends that may shed light on how this happened."

The Newsweek Admission

The White House that the press frequently raps for not admitting its mistakes yesterday pressured Newsweek to fully retract its report that U.S. investigators have confirmed that interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated Korans -- and now says that was only a first step.

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post that Newsweek issued a formal retraction yesterday of the flawed story.

"The damage-control efforts by Newsweek followed criticism by White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who called it 'puzzling' that Newsweek, in his view, had 'stopped short of a retraction.'

" 'That story has damaged the image of the United States abroad and damaged the credibility of the media at home,' McClellan said in an interview. He said that Americans, including President Bush, 'share in the outrage that this report was published in the first place.' . . .

"McClellan said the story 'appears to be very shaky from the get-go' and rests on 'a single anonymous source who cannot substantiate the allegation that was made.' "

Terence Hunt reports this morning for the Associated Press: "The White House says Newsweek took a 'good first step' by retracting its story that U.S. investigators found evidence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay desecrated the Quran, but it wants the magazine to do more to repair damage caused by the article. . . .

"McClellan said a retraction was only 'a good first step' and said Newsweek should try to set the record straight by 'clearly explaining what happened and how they got it wrong, particularly to the Muslim world, and pointing out the policies and practices of our military.' "

Such an examination might ultimately not serve the White House well, however.

John Mintz reported in The Washington Post on Saturday: "Earlier this year, lawyers representing Kuwaitis held at Guantanamo said their clients told them that military police threw at least one Koran into a toilet. A released Afghan named Ehsannullah told The Washington Post in 2003 that U.S. soldiers taunted him by doing the same thing. Three Britons released last year also said Korans were put into toilets by U.S. guards. . . .

"Some Muslims detained at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have complained that U.S. soldiers dumped their Korans into the toilet. After riots this week in Afghanistan that were sparked by reports of the allegations, Pentagon officials said they are investigating.

"But top U.S. military officials said they have not confirmed any such desecrations of the Islamic holy book at Guantanamo Bay."

James Rainey and Mark Mazzetti write in the Los Angeles Times: "A Newsweek journalist familiar with the reporting on the article agreed with his editor's regrets Monday, but said it appeared the administration was seizing on the error to minimize the abuse allegations.

" 'The issue of how prisoners are treated at Guantanamo has not gone away,' said the journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'Now they want to deflect that by talking about how irresponsible Newsweek magazine was.' "

Joe Hagan writes in the Wall Street Journal about how the Newsweek story has again raised questions about anonymous sourcing.

" 'We get bashed for all the anonymous sources but the administration is the one that insists on it,' says Dana Priest, who covers national security for the Washington Post. 'I don't think people realize that.'

"White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan responds that 'sometimes it's difficult for the media to critique itself and it becomes convenient to point to something outside the media. The problem here is not the background briefings per se, although I agree we should end the practice. The problem is much larger.' "

Biodiesel Day

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "With gasoline prices soaring, President Bush urged Congress on Monday to encourage development of alternate fuels like biodiesel and ethanol to make the United States less dependent on foreign oil.

" 'Our dependence on foreign oil is like a foreign tax on the American dream, and that tax is growing every year,' Bush said at the Virginia BioDiesel Refinery about 140 miles south of Washington."

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post that Bush spoke to about 450 GOP activists and supporters.

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times on the pre-speech activities, during which Bush toured the refinery, "where a worker explained the intricacies of making biodiesel fuel out of soybeans. Bush listened attentively as he stood on a catwalk overlooking a room filled with giant cylindrical tanks.

"When invited to scoop out a sample of the finished product, the president did so, offering a beaker of biodiesel to reporters on an adjacent catwalk.

" 'Anybody want a sip?' he said playfully.

" 'After you, sir,' came the reply."

In his pool report, Chen also described a scene that was designed to show how cleanly biodiesel burns in an engine.

"Outside, POTUS witnessed a 'white handkerchief test,' in which said item was held to the exhaust pipe of a biodiesel-fueled tractor trailer after the driver revved the engine (at POTUS's order to 'crank it up.') . . . Allen Schaeffer, executive director, Diesel Technology Forum, climbed down with the hankerchief to display to the president. POTUS held [it] up to his face and appeared to sniff it. The handkerchief indeed seemed to pass the test. A smiling Mr. Bush held up the handkerchief, and said, 'Mr. Wizard!'

"But no rabbit appeared."

Here are AP photos of Bush holding the handkerchief, smelling the handkerchief, and holding the beaker.

Here is the transcript of his speech.

Based on Faith

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Bush has pushed for increased funding for religion-based groups while proposing deep cuts for many traditional anti-poverty programs. The result is that many small church- and community-based social service programs are slowly assuming the lead role in the war on poverty once held by long-established community development organizations. Administration officials say that faith-based groups are often less expensive and more effective in helping the needy, a contention that traditional service providers challenge."

Gannon Watch

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Jeff Gannon's 15 minutes of fame is running a little long, with a lengthy profile in June's Vanity Fair in which the onetime White House reporter for a website run by a Republican fund-raiser talks about his newfound celebrity."

He writes that the Gannon tale "stands as a cautionary tale of the dangers of smoke-and-mirrors journalism in the Internet age."

Today's Calendar

Bush meets with former South African president Nelson Mandela, participates in the ceremonial swearing-in of the U.S. trade representative, and attends the Republican National Committee Gala tonight.

Patuxent Watch

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher writes that "the same president who repairs to Patuxent for his recreation has saddled the refuge with budget cuts that have forced a sharp reduction in its public opening hours and other services."

Correspondents Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post that "Bill Hemmer, co-anchor of CNN's 'American Morning,' may leave the cable news network after being told that executives want to shift him to the post of senior White House correspondent."

Calvin College Watch

Julia Duin writes in the Washington Times: "One-third of the professors at an evangelical Christian college in Grand Rapids, Mich., are taking out a large ad in a local newspaper Saturday to protest President Bush's commencement speech.

" 'As Christians, we are called to be peacemakers and to initiate war only as a last resort,' the ad will say. 'We believe your administration has launched an unjust and unjustified war in Iraq.' "

Cheney Watch

Editor & Publisher catches a doozy: "Appearing on Chris Matthews' NBC talk show on Sunday, [Washington Post Associate Editor Bob] Woodward labeled Vice President Cheney 'a serious dark horse candidate.' He said that with 'a number of people' going for the GOP nomination, 'a guy named George Bush might come out and say 'What about Dick?' "

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