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Downing St. Memos Hint at Early U.S. Plans for Iraq


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

British memos that have come to light recently offer more details of what American and British policy-makers said privately about Iraq before going to war. The Los Angeles Times reports today on six memos provided by a British defense writer. Reporter John Daniszewski writes from London about those memos in the LA Times, and he says they show that by March 2002, the Bush administration was seeking ways to justify an invasion of Iraq. John Daniszewski joins us from London.

And let me ask, first, what are these memos in question?

Mr. JOHN DANISZEWSKI (Los Angeles Times): These are memos that were written in March 2002, and they are preparing for a summit that George Bush and Tony Blair were going to have in April and they're refining their positions on Iraq and what they're going to ask the Americans to do on the war.

SIEGEL: How different is the picture that emerges from these memos of what American officials are saying privately at that time and the picture we had in public of what the US was saying?

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: Well, already in January, President Bush had said that Iraq was part of an axis of evil. And during the month of February, there began to be anonymous newspaper reports saying that all options were on the table and broadly hinting at military action. But what is different in these memos is how far along their thinking is, that they do intend to have a military action in Iraq and that they're thinking how they can possibly get this decision to have international backing and a stamp of international legality.

SIEGEL: Which, of course, leads to the move to the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: Right. Britain was very concerned about this, and what comes through in these memos is a fear that maybe the United States would just go ahead on its own.

SIEGEL: There's a memo that you write about from the British ambassador to Washington at that time, Christopher Meyer, recounting a lunch with Paul Wolfowitz, who was then at the Pentagon. And the idea of insisting on weapons inspectors, at least according to Meyer's memo, it seems, seems to be more about tripping up Saddam Hussein than actually finding any weapons.

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: Yes. And he uses the word `wrong-footing' Saddam, that Saddam would find himself unable to meet the demands of the United Nations and then they would have a cause for military action.

SIEGEL: Was it a setup? Was going to the UN simply a way to create cause for going to war in Iraq?

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: There are one or two mentions in these memos that, `Perhaps if we have weapons inspections, Saddam will cooperate and do everything we ask him.' But the overall tone of them is, `No, we don't think that's gonna happen, and we expect there to be a war.'

SIEGEL: These memos, are they simply leaked or have they been officially released? What can you say about their provenance?

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: They've been leaked. It's a British reporter, Michael Smith, who's obtained them. He's been using them for articles that have appeared in The Daily Telegraph and The Times of London, and he's made them available.

The British government, when it's been asked about them in the past, says, `Well, we don't comment on leaked memos.' But they've also not challenged their authenticity.

SIEGEL: There is one memo from--I believe it's from the British Foreign Office, saying that it would be very difficult to claim that Iraq was stepping up its unconventional weapons programs 'cause, in fact, Saddam Hussein was decelerating that effort rather than accelerating it.

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: That's right. And they also said that they didn't believe the connection between al-Qaeda and Saddam had any veracity to it. And they're basically saying, `Let's stay away from these arguments. They're not winners. Let's talk instead about the UN resolutions and the fact that he might give something to terrorists.'

SIEGEL: Is it possible that what's been leaked is selective so as to underscore one take on what was happening in US-British talks about Iraq and that a fuller release of documents might reveal other things that might dilute the impression we're getting?

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: Well, yes, I think that might be possible. We only have these isolated documents to go on. So unless you see everything, you won't have the full picture. But I would say that there's a remarkable consistency in these documents and other things that have been leaked over the period.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking with us once again.

Mr. DANISZEWSKI: OK. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Los Angeles Times reporter John Daniszewski, speaking to us from London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.