New York Times' Downing Street shuffle

The paper gets to the second leaked briefing late, and gets it wrong.

Published June 13, 2005 3:43PM (EDT)

Scrambling to play catch-up on the unfolding Downing Street memo story, today's New York Times latches onto a single phrase from a newly leaked eight-page briefing document in order to produce the Bush-friendly headline, "Prewar British Memo Says War Decision Wasn't Made." The truth is, the briefing document in question, dated July 21, as well as the previously leaked memo, dated July 23, both stress repeatedly how the Bush administration, despite its public rhetoric, appeared committed to war with Iraq. But thanks to today's Bush-friendly spin, New York Times readers are getting a very different story.

Here's how the paper, scooped by yesterday's Washington Post and Sunday Times of London, plays the release of the July 21 briefing document: "A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made 'no political decisions' to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced." The Times adds, "The publication of the memorandum is significant because a previously leaked document, now known as the Downing Street Memo, appeared to suggest that a decision to go to war may have been made that summer."

What the Times is saying is that despite the controversy surrounding the original Downing Street memo and its implication that the U.S. had decided on war -- contrary to numerous Bush statements -- eight months prior to the invasion, the newly leaked briefing document throws all of that into question because British officials noted Washington had made "no political decisions" to invade. In other words, according to the Times, Tony Blair might be right in his public insistence, given with Bush at his side, that the two governments misled nobody during the run-up to war.

Set aside for the moment the fact that the Times' report completely ignores the portion of the briefing document that raises questions about the legality of going to war. The memo states, "Regime change per se is not a proper basis for military action under international law." According to the Sunday Times of London, "The briefing paper, for participants at a meeting of Blair's inner circle on July 23, 2002, said that since regime change was illegal it was 'necessary to create the conditions' which would make it legal."

Apparently the New York Times did not consider that to be newsworthy. Instead it focused on the notion that "no political decisions" had been made to invade Iraq. The problem here is that the briefing containing the phrase "no political decision" was written July 21, 2002, and the memo containing minutes from a senior meeting of British officials was written July 23, in which it was reported that Washington appeared bent on war. That is, the July 21 briefing paper was distributed to participants in preparation for the meeting two days later with Bush's closest intelligence advisors, where the updated details of war planning were then discussed -- and from which one conclusion reached by the Brits was: "Military action was now seen as inevitable."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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