Forced to the basement of the U.S. Capitol and prevented from holding an official hearing, Michigan Rep. John Conyers defied Republicans and held a forum Thursday calling for a congressional inquiry into the infamous British document known as the "Downing Street memo."
Three dozen Democratic representatives shuffled in and out of a small room to join Conyers in declaring that the Downing Street memo was the first "primary source" document to report that prewar intelligence was intentionally manipulated in order make a case for invading Iraq. Not only did Republican leaders consign the Democrats to the basement, Democrats claimed that the House scheduled 11 votes concurrent with the forum to maximize the difficulty of attending it. Because the forum wasn't an official hearing, it won't become a part of the Congressional Record, but members worked to make sure that the attending media and activists captured their words for posterity.
The Downing Street memo, so far disputed by Washington and London in some of its details but not its authenticity, reports on minutes of a meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his national security team on July 23, 2002. First reported by the London Sunday Times on May 1 of this year, the internal memo states that, in the opinion of "C" (Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service), "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the [Bush administration's] policy." The author of the memo added that it "seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action." Since then, several other British government memos have become public that also make the case that the White House was planning the war long before it admitted to doing so.
The Democratic representatives attending the forum said they believed if such information had gotten out prior to the war, neither the House nor the Senate would have supported the Oct. 11, 2002, congressional vote giving the president the power to order the invasion.
To the Democrats taking turns to speak at the forum on Thursday, the memo was tantamount to the first word of tapes in the Nixon White House during the Watergate scandal. Impeachment was on these representatives' minds as four longtime critics of the war in Iraq, including former Ambassador Joe Wilson, repeatedly urged Congress to hold an official inquiry into the validity and origins of the Downing Street memo.
"We sent our troops to war under dubious pretenses," asserted Wilson, who traveled at the government's behest to Niger in February 2002. There he discovered that President Bush's claim that Iraq was attempting to obtain uranium in Africa was false. The White House later retracted the accusation.
Speaking to the question of impeachment, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., asked point blank, "Has the president misled, or deliberately misled, the Congress?"
The answer is at the heart of Conyers' push for further investigation. Misleading Congress is an impeachable offense, and Conyers' petition for an inquiry into the memo seemed a first step in that direction -- though no one made that call outright.
"Many of us find it unacceptable to put our brave men and women in harm's way, based on false information," Conyers said. Though most of those at the forum voted against the war in Iraq, Conyers, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, insisted that the forum was not partisan politicking, but a function of their oversight duty.
As members of Congress crammed into the small room, no bigger than 30 by 50 feet, Democratic representatives spoke and then scurried out to make scheduled votes. After being denied a hearing, then forced to the basement, which Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., called unprecedented, the Democrats believed Republicans had purposely scheduled 11 votes to interrupt the forum.
"Absolutely, it was absolutely timed," McDermott said in an interview after the forum. "There was no need to do it then. And they were having a major appropriations hearing at the same time. That was also to keep people away, because appropriations are your chance to get money for your district that you've been working all year on."
McDermott spoke as Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., delayed her aide and sprinted down the hall in her high heels to do an interview with Pacifica Radio. Covered mostly by liberal media outlets, the forum got some mainstream news attention, from the AP to the Baltimore Sun to CNN. Democrats who dropped by included Reps. Rangel, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Virginia's Jim Moran, and Barbara Lee of Oakland, Calif.
Following the forum, Conyers led Democratic representatives and activists on a march to the White House, hoping to deliver a letter with more than 550,000 signatures of the public and more than 120 members of Congress, mostly but not all Democrats. White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press that Conyers "is simply trying to rehash old debates."
As he left, the mild but indefatigable Conyers was a little angry that the forum was denied a proper room in the Capitol.
"They tried to shut us out," Conyers said after the hearing. "They tried to cut us off. They put us in a tiny room. The significance shouldn't be lost on anybody."