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Book Gives Vital Background to Downing Street Memo

New Book "State of War" by NY Times' James Risen Gives Vital Background to Downing Street Memo

By Jonathan Schwarz

The relevant excerpts from State of War appear at the bottom of this post

After the Downing Street Memo was leaked last May, the U.S. and U.K. governments were eventually forced to admit it was genuine. However, they never revealed any background to the memo—most importantly, who did Richard Dearlove, head of British intelligence, meet with in Washington just before the July 23, 2002 high-level U.K. government meeting the memo memorialized? This would go a long way to answering why Dearlove believed "Military action was now seen as inevitable" and "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

State of War, the just-released book by New York Times reporter James Risen, sheds important new light on these issues. (State of War is now best known for its revelations about warrantless spying by the NSA, but it contains a great deal of other significant information.) Regarding the Downing Street Memo, the most important points made by State of War are these:

  • Dearlove was in part reporting on a CIA-MI6 summit he attended with other top MI6 officials at CIA headquarters on Saturday, July 20, 2002

  • According to "a former senior CIA officer," the meeting was held "at the urgent request of the British"; CIA officials believe "Blair had ordered Dearlove to go to Washington to find out what the Bush administration was really thinking about Iraq"

  • During the day-long summit, Dearlove met privately with CIA head George Tenet for an hour and a half
  • This obviously raises other questions, such as:

  • What records of the meeting exist on the American side?

  • Will the Senate Intelligence Committee examine the meeting as part of its Phase II Iraq intelligence investigation?

  • What specifically did Dearlove and Tenet discuss when alone?

  • Why has the New York Times failed to publish Risen's information about the Downing Street Memo background?
  • Risen's book also makes the scoffing about the Downing Street Memo by various Washington pundits appear even more peculiar. For instance, in a Washington Post column, Michael Kinsley suggested Dearlove might have just been reporting back to Blair about what he'd heard from "the usual freelance chatterboxes." Later, in an exchange with Mark Danner, Kinsley indicated Dearlove may have simply been talking about the "mood and gossip of 'Washington.'"

    In any case, there is clearly much more to the story, if anyone besides James Risen cares enough to investigate it.


    From State of War by James Risen, p. 112-114:

    As the invasion of Iraq drew closer, an attitude took hold among many senior CIA officials that war was inevitable—and so the quality of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction didn't really matter. This attitude led CIA management to cut corners and accept shoddy intelligence, other CIA officials believe...This acceptance of weak intelligence among senior CIA officials appears to be the backstory to the famous so-called Downing Street Memo.

    According to a former senior CIA official, the memo—the leaked British government document from July 2002 that provided a British assessment of the Bush administration's plans for Iraq—was written immediately after a secret conference in Washington between top officials of the CIA and British intelligence. The memo, dated July 23, reported that "there was a perceptible shift in attitude" in Washington about Iraq. The memo went on to say that "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."

    The memo reflected an assessment of the prevailing attitude inside the Bush administration offered to Prime Minister Tony Blair by Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, the British intelligence service. Just days before, Dearlove and other top MI6 officials had attended a CIA-MI6 summit meeting held at CIA headquarters, in which the two sides had candid talks about both counterterrorism and Iraq. According to a former senior CIA officer, the summit meeting was held at the urgent request of the British.

    The American and British intelligence services are so close that under normal circumstances, they hold an annual summit to discuss a wide range of issues in a relaxed setting. The year before it had been held in Bermuda. But after 9/11, Tenet had told other CIA officials he was too busy to be bothered with another conference with the British, particularly one held in a remote location. The British were very insistent, however, and kept pushing for the meeting, the former CIA official said. The MI6 officials made it very clear to their CIA counterparts that they had to sit down and talk immediately.

    CIA officials believe that Prime Minister Blair had ordered Dearlove to go to Washington to find out what the Bush administration was really thinking about Iraq. While Blair was in constant communication with President Bush, he apparently wanted his intelligence chief to scout out the thinking of other senior officials in Washington, to give him a reality check on what he was hearing from the White House.

    "I think in hindsight that it is clear that Dearlove was insistent on having the summit because Blair wanted him to find out what was going on," said the former CIA official.

    Tenet finally agreed to the conference as long as it could be held at CIA headquarters, rather than out of town. The session was scheduled for Saturday, July 20, 2002.

    The two sides ended up spending most of that Saturday together. One of Tenet's great attributes was his ability to develop warm relationships with the chiefs of allied intelligence services, and Tenet had an especially good personal relationship with Dearlove. He was usually very candid with his British counterpart.

    During the Saturday summmit, Tenet and Dearlove left the larger meeting and went off by themselves for about an hour and a half, according the a former senior CIA official who attended the summit. It is unclear what Tenet and Dearlove discussed during their one-on-one session. Yet Dearlove's overall assessment was reflected in the Downing Street Memo: the CIA chief and other CIA officials didn't believe that the WMD intelligence mattered, because was was coming one way or another.

    "I doubt that Tenet would have said that Bush was fixed the intelligence," said a former CIA official. "But I think Dearlove was a very smart intelligence officer who could figure out what was going on. Plus, the MI6 station chief in Washington was in CIA headquarters all the time, with just about complete access to everything, and I am sure he was talking to a lot of people."


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