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 briefing paper, for participants at a meeting
of Blair’s inner circle on July 23, 2002, said that
since regime change was illegal it was “necessary
to create the conditions” which would make it legal.
This was required because, even if ministers decided
Britain should not take part in an invasion, the American
military would be using British bases. This would
automatically make Britain complicit in any illegal
“US plans assume, as a minimum, the use of British
bases in Cyprus and Diego Garcia,” the briefing paper
warned. This meant that issues of legality “would
arise virtually whatever option ministers choose with
regard to UK participation”.
The paper was circulated to those present at the
meeting, among whom were Blair, Geoff Hoon, then defence
secretary, Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, and
Sir Richard Dearlove, then chief of MI6. The full
minutes of the meeting were published last month in
The Sunday Times.
The document said the only way the allies could justify
military action was to place Saddam Hussein in a position
where he ignored or rejected a United Nations ultimatum
ordering him to co-operate with the weapons inspectors.
But it warned this would be difficult.
“It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast
in terms which Saddam would reject,” the document
says. But if he accepted it and did not attack the
allies, they would be “most unlikely” to obtain the
legal justification they needed.
The suggestions that the allies use the UN to justify
war contradicts claims by Blair and Bush, repeated
during their Washington summit last week, that they
turned to the UN in order to avoid having to go to
war. The attack on Iraq finally began in March 2003.
The briefing paper is certain to add to the pressure,
particularly on the American president, because of
the damaging revelation that Bush and Blair agreed
on regime change in April 2002 and then looked for
a way to justify it.
There has been a growing storm of protest in America,
created by last month’s publication of the minutes
in The Sunday Times. A host of citizens, including
many internet bloggers, have demanded to know why
the Downing Street memo (often shortened to “the DSM”
on websites) has been largely ignored by the US mainstream
The White House has declined to respond to a letter
from 89 Democratic congressmen asking if it was true
— as Dearlove told the July meeting — that “the intelligence
and facts were being fixed around the policy” in Washington.
The Downing Street memo burst into the mainstream
American media only last week after it was raised
at a joint Bush-Blair press conference, forcing the
prime minister to insist that “the facts were not
fixed in any shape or form at all”.
John Conyers, the Democratic congressman who drafted
the letter to Bush, has now written to Dearlove asking
him to say whether or not it was accurate that he
believed the intelligence was being “fixed” around
the policy. He also asked the former MI6 chief precisely
when Bush and Blair had agreed to invade Iraq and
whether it is true they agreed to “manufacture” the
UN ultimatum in order to justify the war.
He and other Democratic congressmen plan to hold
their own inquiry this Thursday with witnesses including
Joe Wilson, the American former ambassador who went
to Niger to investigate claims that Iraq was seeking
to buy uranium ore for its nuclear weapons programme.
Frustrated at the refusal by the White House to respond
to their letter, the congressmen have set up a website
— www.downingstreetmemo.com — to collect signatures
on a petition demanding the same answers.
Conyers promised to deliver it to Bush once it reached
250,000 signatures. By Friday morning it already had
more than 500,000 with as many as 1m expected to have
been obtained when he delivers it to the White House
AfterDowningStreet.org, another website set up as
a result of the memo, is calling for a congressional
committee to consider whether Bush’s actions as depicted
in the memo constitute grounds for impeachment.
It has been flooded with visits from people angry
at what they see as media self-censorship in ignoring
the memo. It claims to have attracted more than 1m
hits a day.
Democrats.com, another website, even offered $1,000
(about £550) to any journalist who quizzed Bush about
the memo’s contents, although the Reuters reporter
who asked the question last Tuesday was not aware
of the reward and has no intention of claiming it.
The complaints of media self-censorship have been
backed up by the ombudsmen of The Washington Post,
The New York Times and National Public Radio, who
have questioned the lack of attention the minutes
have received from their organisations.