Media ignored, underreported NY Times disclosure of explosive Bush-Blair memo

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Since a March 27 New York Times article confirmed that a leaked British memo appears to contradict President Bush's repeated claim prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that he wanted to avoid war, media have failed to note the full significance of the document and in some cases ignored the story altogether.

Since a March 27 New York Times article confirmed that a leaked British memo appears to contradict President Bush's repeated claim prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that he wanted to avoid war, media have failed to note the full significance of the document and in some cases ignored the story altogether. For instance, major newspapers have yet to feature articles on the memo, and Fox News has not once mentioned the document. CBS and ABC have limited their coverage to several brief mentions of the story. And numerous other reports have failed to contrast the memo's depiction of Bush with his public statements prior to the war.

In the Times article, headlined "Bush Was Set on Path to War, British Memo Says," staff writer Don Van Natta Jr. examined in detail a five-page memo summarizing a January 31, 2003, Oval Office meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The memo, written by then-chief British foreign policy adviser David Manning, had been previously disclosed in a February 3 Guardian article, as well as in the book Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (Viking, October 2005) by international law professor Philippe Sands. The document portrays the leaders as skeptical that sectarian violence would follow an Iraq invasion and describes them discussing the possible assassination of Saddam Hussein and considering a proposal to paint a U.S. surveillance aircraft in U.N. colors in the hopes of provoking an Iraqi attack. Moreover, the document proves Bush "was determined to invade Iraq without the [United Nations] second resolution, or even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons," as the Times reported:

At their meeting, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair candidly expressed their doubts that chemical, biological or nuclear weapons would be found in Iraq in the coming weeks, the memo said. The president spoke as if an invasion was unavoidable. The two leaders discussed a timetable for the war, details of the military campaign and plans for the aftermath of the war.

[...]

At several points during the meeting between Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, there was palpable tension over finding a legitimate legal trigger for going to war that would be acceptable to other nations, the memo said. The prime minister was quoted as saying it was essential for both countries to lobby for a second United Nations resolution against Iraq, because it would serve as "an insurance policy against the unexpected."

[...]

Mr. Bush agreed that the two countries should attempt to get a second resolution, but he added that time was running out. "The U.S. would put its full weight behind efforts to get another resolution and would twist arms and even threaten," Mr. Bush was paraphrased in the memo as saying.

The document added, "But he had to say that if we ultimately failed, military action would follow anyway."

Bush's positions as reported in the memo -- that U.N. inspectors were unlikely to find weapons, that military action would occur with or without the U.N.'s backing, that the war was unavoidable -- directly contradict many of his public statements in the weeks leading up to the invasion. Between that January 31 meeting and the start of the war on March 19, 2003, the president repeatedly told the American people that he was doing everything possible to avoid military action:

  • On February 10, Bush said, "If war is forced upon us -- and I say 'forced upon us,' because use of the military is not my first choice. ... But should we need to use troops, for the sake of future generations of Americans, American troops will act in the honorable traditions of our military and in the highest moral traditions of our country."
  • On February 13, Bush said, "Military force is always this nation's last option. Yet if force becomes necessary to disarm Iraq and enforce the will of the United Nations, if force becomes necessary to secure our country and to keep the peace, America will act deliberately, America will act decisively, and America will act victoriously with the world's greatest military."
  • On February 20, Bush said that the U.S. will act decisively "if military force becomes necessary to disarm Iraq." He further stated that the nation would liberate the people of Iraq "if war is forced upon us."
  • On February 25, a reporter asked Bush, "What would it take at this point to avoid a war with Iraq?" Bush answered, "Full disarmament."
  • On March 6, Bush said, "I've not made up our mind about military action. Hopefully, this can be done peacefully."
  • On March 8, Bush said, "We are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq."
  • On March 16, Bush said, "Saddam Hussein can leave the country, if he's interested in peace. You see, the decision is his to make. And it's been his to make all along as to whether or not there's the use of the military."
  • On March 17, Bush said, "Should Saddam Hussein choose confrontation, the American people can know that every measure has been taken to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it."

In light of these statements, the January 31 memo -- and the Times' verification of it -- is obviously significant. Nonetheless, numerous news outlets have failed to cover the story at all, or in some cases failed to cover it adequately. Fox News has ignored it entirely. A Media Matters for America survey of Fox's full March 27 coverage (6 a.m.-11 p.m. ET) and partial March 28 coverage (6 a.m.-noon ET) failed to turn up a single mention of the memo.

Similarly, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today all declined to run articles on the memo in their March 28 editions. Both the Associated Press and Reuters have failed to report on the story thus far. By contrast, United Press International ran two articles on March 27 -- one on the memo and one on the White House's reaction to the Times piece.

The major networks covered the Times' disclosure of the memo, but their reports varied greatly in the degree to which they conveyed its significance. On the March 27 edition of the CBS Evening News, for instance, anchor Russ Mitchell asked CBS' chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan about the document after her report on recent sectarian violence in Iraq. Logan noted that, according to the document, Blair and Bush believed that there was "unlikely to be warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups in Iraq." But even though the Evening News noted the document in this context, the newscast failed to report the other aspect of the memo: that it contradicted Bush's public claims that he wanted to resolve the Iraq issue diplomatically. Earlier in the day, however, CBS Morning News anchor Susan McGinnis noted the Times' disclosure of the memo and described Bush as "reportedly determined to invade Iraq no matter what the outcome of diplomatic efforts."

On the March 23 edition of ABC's World News Tonight, anchor Elizabeth Vargas simply reported that the memo "paints President Bush as eager to provoke Saddam Hussein into war." While she referred to Bush and Blair's discussion of ways to prompt an attack from Hussein and their reported lack of concern about sectarian violence following the Iraq invasion, Vargas made no mention of the document's broader relevance.

By contrast, that morning on ABC's Good Morning America, host Robin Roberts briefly mentioned the memo in her rundown of the day's news and noted that it portrayed Bush as "bent on invading Iraq no matter what." Similarly, on the March 27 edition of NBC Nightly News, anchor Brian Williams introduced a report on the story as follows: "In the weeks before the invasion of Iraq, as President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair said they were pursuing all options for avoiding a war, a leaked British memo strongly suggests something very different was going on behind closed doors." In the subsequent report, NBC chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell noted that Bush and Blair "were officially on a diplomatic track, but a secret memo now reveals they were determined to go to war six weeks before invading Iraq."

CNN's coverage of the memo consisted of a single segment by national security correspondent David Ensor. In the report, which aired three times -- twice on the March 27 edition of The Situation Room (see here and here) and once more on the March 28 edition of American Morning -- Ensor said that the memo described Bush and Blair "talking privately on that day as if they assumed war was inevitable." But rather than note the contradictions between Bush's statements in the memo and his subsequent comments in the weeks following, Ensor focused instead on the leaders' discussion of the possibility of Saddam being assassinated, the idea of provoking an attack on a U.S. surveillance aircraft, and the chances of sectarian violence in Iraq.

Of the three cable news networks, MSNBC devoted the most airtime to the British memo and repeatedly emphasized its relevance. On the March 27 edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, correspondent David Shuster reported that, according to the document, Bush and Blair were "determined to invade Iraq, whether the U.N. approved it or not and regardless of the results of international arms inspections." Later in the show, host Chris Matthews said that the memo showed that the leaders were "set on an unswerving path to war, even as they publicly kept the door open to negotiations at least six weeks before the war began." Matthews then interviewed Philippe Sands, who said of the memo, "[T]his goes to issues of competence and why, frankly, I think in both Britain and the United States, there needs to be a full investigation of the road to war."

Later in the evening, on MSNBC's Countdown, host Keith Olbermann went further, contrasting the memo's contents with Bush's statement that "[n]o president wants war" -- made in response to a question from Hearst Newspapers columnist Helen Thomas at a March 21 press conference. Olbermann said: "Tonight, more evidence to suggest, at least in his case, that might not have been true." He subsequently interviewed Andrea Mitchell, who said that the memo indicated that "whether or not they found weapons of mass destruction, whether or not Saddam Hussein turned anything over, whether or not there was further action by the U.N., none of that was going to matter."

Media Matters previously noted the print and broadcast media's failure to coverage the so-called Downing Street memo in June 2005.

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