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Context of 'May 1, 2005: London Sunday Times Publishes ‘Downing Street Memo’ '

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Top British officials attend a meeting to discuss Britain’s potential role in the Bush administration’s confrontation with Iraq. According to the minutes of the meeting, transcribed by Matthew Rycroft, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of the British intelligence service, MI6, says that during his last visit (see July 20, 2002) to Washington he noticed a “perceptible shift in attitude. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy.” Furthermore, he states, Bush’s National Security Council indicated it “had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record.” He also noted that there “was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.” [United Kingdom, 7/23/2002; Salon, 5/6/2005; Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] Foreign Minister Jack Straw appears to agree with Dearlove’s assessment, saying that it seems clear that President Bush has already decided on using military force to depose Saddam Hussein. But Straw notes that the Bush administration’s case against Saddam was “thin.” The Iraqi leader “was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea, or Iran,” the minutes say, summarizing his remarks. [Guardian, 5/2/2005; Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] There is no indication in the minutes that anyone present at the meeting disputed Dearlove’s or Straw’s observations. [United Kingdom, 7/23/2002] Furthermore, the account provided by the intelligence official and Straw are corroborated by a former senior US official who is later interviewed by Knight Ridder. It is “an absolutely accurate description of what transpired,” the official will say. [Knight Ridder, 5/2/2005] Straw proposes that the next step would be to “work up an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors,” which “would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.” [Guardian, 5/2/2005; Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] Britain’s attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, warns that “the desire for regime change [is] not a legal base for military action,” the minutes say. But Blair says that “it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors.” [Los Angeles Times, 5/12/2005] Finally, the officials agree that the British government “should continue to work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action” but “not ignore the legal issues.” [Guardian, 5/2/2005] The minutes do not provide any indication that officials discussed how war might be avoided. [Salon, 6/10/2005] The minutes of this meetings will be revealed by the British Sunday Times three years later (see May 1, 2005). Commonly referred to as the “Downing Street Memo,” the minutes will re-spark the controversy over politicized intelligence.

Entity Tags: Richard Wilson, Michael Boyce, Peter Henry Goldsmith, Richard Dearlove, Jonathan Powell, Geoff Hoon, Jack Straw, Alastair Campbell, Francis Richards, Sally Morgan, John Scarlett, Tony Blair

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

The State Department sends a memo (see June 10, 2003) to Secretary of State Colin Powell as he is traveling with President Bush and other senior White House officials to Africa. Powell is seen during the flight walking around Air Force One with the memo in his hand. The memo concerns the trip by former ambassador Joseph Wilson to Niger, where he learned that allegations of Iraq attempts to purchase Nigerien uranium were false (see February 17, 2003, March 7, 2003, March 8, 2003, and 3:09 p.m. July 11, 2003), and reveals his wife as a covert CIA agent. [New York Times, 7/16/2005; Rich, 2006, pp. 180] The paragraph identifying Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA official is marked “S-NF,” signfying its information is classified “Secret, Noforn.” Noforn is a code word indicating that the information is not to be shared with foreign nationals. [Washington Post, 7/21/2005; Newsweek, 8/1/2005] When Wilson’s op-ed debunking the uranium claim and lambasting the administration for using it as a justification for war appears in the New York Times (see July 6, 2003), Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, calls Carl Ford, the head of the State Department’s internal intelligence unit, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at Ford’s home. Armitage asks Ford to send a copy of the Grossman memo to Powell, who is preparing to leave for Africa with Bush. Ford sends a copy of the memo to the White House for transmission to Powell. The memo relies on notes by an analyst who was involved in a February 19, 2002 meeting to discuss whether to send someone to Africa to investigate the uranium claims, and if so, who (see February 19, 2002). The notes do not identify either Wilson or his wife by name, and erroneously state that the meeting was “apparently convened by” the wife of a former ambassador “who had the idea to dispatch” her husband to Niger because of his contacts in the region. Wilson is a former ambassador to Gabon. Plame Wilson has said that she suggested her husband for the trip, introduced him at the meeting, and left after about three minutes (see February 13, 2002). The memo identifies Wilson’s wife as Valerie Wilson; when conservative columnist Robert Novak outs her as a CIA agent (see July 14, 2003), he identifies her by her maiden name, Valerie Plame. The memo will later become a matter of intense interest to investigators attempting to learn how Plame Wilson’s identity was leaked to the press (see (July 15, 2005)). [New York Times, 7/16/2005; Rich, 2006, pp. 180]

Entity Tags: Joseph C. Wilson, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, George W. Bush, Carl W. Ford, Jr., Valerie Plame Wilson, Richard Armitage, Central Intelligence Agency, US Department of State, Colin Powell, Robert Novak

Timeline Tags: Niger Uranium and Plame Outing

The London Sunday Times publishes the secret “Downing Secret Memo.” The memo contains the minutes from a July 23, 2002 meeting (see July 23, 2002) revealing that several of Britain’s top officials believed the Bush administration had already decided to go to war with Iraq by the summer of 2002. The minutes also reveal that the head of the British intelligence service believed at the time that US intelligence was being “fixed” around Washington’s plan to topple the Iraqi government. [United Kingdom, 7/23/2002] The memo will be ignored by the US press, even though many believe it represents the best evidence so far that the Bush administration manipulated intelligence prior to the war. Much of the existing evidence on politicized intelligence consists of accounts provided by former officials and unnamed sources. The Downing Street minutes, however, meet a higher standard of proof because it is the official classified record of a meeting attended by the security cabinet of America’s closest ally. [Salon, 6/10/2005] “The memo is significant because it was written by our closest ally, and when it comes to writing minutes on foreign policy and security matters, the British are professionals,” notes Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel. “We can conclude that the memo means precisely what it says. It says that Bush had already made the decision for war even while he was insisting publicly, and for many months thereafter, that war was the last resort.” [Knight Ridder, 6/12/2005]

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

White House press secretary Scott McClellan says accusations stemming from the “Downing Street Memo” (see May 1, 2005) that intelligence was “being fixed” to support a policy of regime change in Iraq are “flat out wrong.” Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was “very public,” McClellan insists. “The president of the United States, in a very public way, reached out to people across the world, went to the United Nations and tried to resolve this in a diplomatic manner. Saddam Hussein was the one, in the end, who chose continued defiance. And only then was the decision made, as a last resort, to go into Iraq.” [CNN, 5/17/2005; United Press International, 5/17/2005]

Entity Tags: Scott McClellan

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

During a joint press conference with President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a Reuters reporter asks both leaders whether comments made by Sir Richard Dearlove, recorded in the minutes of a July 23 British cabinet meeting (see July 23, 2002), were accurate. According to the minutes, Dearlove said that the “intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy [of regime change].” Responding to the question, Blair insists that the facts were not fixed “in any shape or form at all.” Bush’s response, however, does not answer the question. Instead, he addresses another issue that was raised by the Downing Street minutes. The minutes, along with several other recently published Downing Street documents, called into question the Bush administration’s claim that the decision to use military force against Iraq did not take place until shortly before the invasion began. In his response to the reporter’s question, Bush chooses to discuss this issue instead. “And somebody said, ‘Well, you know, we had made up our mind to go to use military force to deal with Saddam.’ There’s nothing farther from the truth… [Saddam Hussein] made the decision.” Significantly, neither Bush nor Blair, in their responses, attempt to challenge the authenticity of the memo. [New York Times, 6/8/2005; US President, 6/13/2005]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Tony Blair

Timeline Tags: Events Leading to Iraq Invasion

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