Tony Blair is in Washington today to talk with George W. Bush about aid for Africa, but it might be an opportune moment for the White House press corps to talk about something else: The 2002 Downing Street memo which shows that Blair was told that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed" to support Bush's plan to depose Saddam Hussein through military force.
Bush held a press conference last week, but no one in the White House press corps bothered to ask him about the memo then. Reporters will probably get another chance to ask today, this time with Blair sitting right there in the room, too. They can even get paid for asking. Democrats.com has posted a $1,000 reward for any reporter who gets Bush to give a "yes or no" answer to the question, "In July 2002, did you and your administration 'fix' the intelligence and facts about non-existent Iraqi WMD's and ties to terrorism -- which were disputed by U.S. intelligence officials -- to sell your decision to invade Iraq to Congress, the American people, and the world -- as quoted in the Downing Street Minutes?" Hell, they'll get a hundred bucks if they just ask the question without getting an answer.
On "Meet the Press" over the weekend, Tim Russert actually worked up the nerve to ask Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman about what Russert called -- oddly, given the lack of media attention -- that "now famous Downing Street memo." Although Blair's office hasn't ever disputed the authenticity of the memo, Mehlman said: "Tim, that report has been discredited by everyone else who's looked at it." Mehlman then ticked off a list of investigating bodies that didn't have access to the memo -- the 9/11 Commission, the Senate, "whoever's looked at this" -- and said that they've all concluded that "there was no effort to change the intelligence at all." He added: "The fact is that the intelligence of this country, the intelligence of Britain, the intelligence of the United Nations, the intelligence all over the world said that there were weapons of mass destruction present in Iraq. We knew that Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction before. We still know that there was a weapons of mass destruction program."
Of course, that intelligence wasn't anything like what administration officials made it out to be, a point on which Russert gave Mehlman a pass. But Russert did call the Republican chairman on his claim that the Downing Street memo had been "discredited" -- a fact that just isn't fact. Russert said: "I don't believe that the authenticity of this report has been discredited." Mehlman went right back to his talking points: "I believe that the findings of the report, the fact that the intelligence was somehow fixed have been totally discredited by everyone who's looked at it."
What neither Russert nor Mehlman mentioned: The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence put off until after the presidential election its plan to examine the Bush administration's role in shaping intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Now that Bush has won a second term and his own hand-picked commission has exonerated the White House of any responsibility for fixing intelligence, the Republican who controls the Senate committee, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, has declared that any further investigation into what the White House did to sell the war would be a "monumental waste of time."
So far, at least, it seems that the White House press corps agrees.