LONDON – Reports in the British media this month based on documents indicating that President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair had conditionally agreed by July 2002 to invade Iraq appear to have blown over quickly in Britain. But in the United States, where the reports at first received scant attention, there has been a growing groundswell of indignation among critics of the Bush White House, who say the documents help prove the leaders made a secret decision to oust Saddam Hussein nearly a year before launching their attack, shaped intelligence to that aim, and never seriously intended to avert the war through diplomacy.
The documents, obtained by Michael Smith, a defense specialist writing for the Sunday Times of London, include minutes of a July 23, 2002, meeting of Blair and his intelligence and military chiefs, a briefing paper for that meeting, and a Foreign Office legal opinion prepared before the summit of Blair and Bush in Crawford, Texas, on April 6-7, 2002.
The picture that emerges from the documents is of a British government convinced of the United States’ wanting to go to war against Saddam Hussein and Blair agreeing, subject to several specific conditions.
Since Smith’s report was published May 1, Blair’s office has not disputed the papers’ authenticity.
The leaked minutes summed up a July 23 meeting held at Downing Street, where Blair, his top security advisers and his attorney general discussed Britain’s role in Washington’s plan to oust Saddam. The minutes written by a foreign policy aide, Matthew Rycroft, indicate general thoughts among participants about how to create a political and a legal basis for a war. The case for military action at the time was “thin,” Foreign Minister Jack Straw was characterized as saying, and Saddam’s government was posing little threat.
Labeled “secret and strictly personal – UK eyes only,” the minutes begin with the head of British intelligence, MI6, identified as “C,” telling meeting participants that he had returned from Washington, where there was a “perceptible shift in attitude. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.”
Straw agreed that Bush seemed determined on military action, though the timing was not certain.
“But the case was thin,” the minutes read. “Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capacity was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”
Straw then proposed to “work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam” to permit weapons inspectors back into Iraq. “This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force,” he said, according to the minutes.
In a letter to Bush last week, 89 House Democrats expressed shock at the documents.
They asked if the documents were true and if so, did they not prove that the White House had already agreed on an invasion months before seeking authorization from Congress.
“If the disclosure is accurate, it raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of our own administration,” the letter said.
“While the president of the United States was telling the citizens and the Congress that they had no intention to start a war with Iraq, they were working very close with Tony Blair and the British leadership at making this a foregone conclusion,” the letter’s chief author, Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said Wednesday.
Both Blair and Bush have denied a war decision was made in early 2002. The leaders maintain that they were preparing for military operations as one option, but the option to not attack also remained open until the start of the war on March 20, 2003.