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

Summary: 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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