Two senior British government officials today acknowledged as authentic a series of 2002 pre-Iraq war memos stating that Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program was "effectively frozen" and that there was "no recent evidence" of Iraqi ties to international terrorism--private conclusions that contradicted two key pillars of the Bush administration's public case for the invasion in March 2003.
A March 8, 2002, secret "options" paper prepared by Prime Minister Tony Blair's top national-security aides also stated that intelligence on Saddam's purported weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was "poor." While noting that Saddam had used such weapons in the past and could do so again "if his regime were threatened," the options paper concluded "there is no greater threat now than in recent years that Saddam will use WMD."
The options paper was written just one month before Blair met with President Bush in Crawford, Texas. According to another leaked internal memo, Blair agreed at the meeting to support a U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam's regime provided that "certain conditions" were met. Those conditions, according to the newly leaked memo, were that efforts be made to "construct a coalition" and "shape" public opinion; that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was "quiescent," and that attempts to eliminate Iraqi WMD through the return of United Nations weapons inspectors be exhausted.
The British documents are becoming something of a cause celebre among Capitol Hill Democrats and other critics of the Iraq war who see them as evidence that the Bush administration had privately committed to an invasion far earlier than it has publicly acknowledged--and then "fixed" the intelligence about Iraq to justify the policy.
Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan is planning to convene a rump congressional "hearing" on Thursday designed to give more attention to the documents, which have gotten only sporadic coverage in the U.S. press. No Republicans are expected to participate in the Conyers hearing and White House aides have dismissed the leaked British documents as misleading.
Asked last week at joint press conference with Blair about the memos' suggestion that he was determined to go to war since early 2002 regardless of what intelligence showed, Bush replied: "There's nothing farther from the truth. My conversations with the prime minister was [sic], how can we do this peacefully?" Bush noted that the United States and Britain did go to the United Nations, gained passage of a Security Council resolution demanding cooperation with weapons inspectors and that Saddam "ignored the world." A spokesman said today the White House had nothing to add to what the president has already said about the memos.
Still, not unlike the Pentagon Papers during the height of the Vietnam War, the leaked memos offer an unusually candid glimpse at the inner workings of pre-Iraq war policymaking. Besides revealing the private doubts of many senior British officials about a prospective invasion, they also provide an inside look at their conversations with top U.S. officials, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice.
"I think there is a real risk that the [Bush] administration underestimates the difficulties [of an invasion]," David Manning, a top foreign-policy adviser and now Britain's ambassador to the United States, wrote in a March 14, 2002, memo to Blair shortly before the prime minister's visit to Bush at Crawford. "They may agree that failure isn't an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it."
Another of the memos brings to life a behind-the-scenes discussion between Sir Christopher Meyer, British ambassador to Washington at the time, and Wolfowitz, who was then deputy Defense secretary and one of the prime architects of the invasion. The document, a March 18, 2002, memo by Meyer, recounts a lunch the two men had the day before and is entitled "Iraq and Afghanistan: Conversation with Wolfowitz."
According to the document, Meyer opened the lunch by telling Wolfowitz that Britain backed regime change "but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option ... The U.S. could go it alone if it wanted to. But if it wanted to act with partners, there had to be a strategy for building support for military action." Meyer said he "then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the [U.N. weapons] inspectors ... and the critical importance of the MEPP [Middle East peace process] as an integral part of the anti-Saddam strategy."
Wolfowitz said he "fully agreed," though he felt that in addition to making a public case about Saddam's WMD, it would also be "indispensable to spell out in detail Saddam's barbarism."
But the memo also reveals Wolfowitz's determination to find connections between Saddam and international terrorists. "Wolfowitz said it was absurd to deny the link between terrorism and Saddam," the memo states. When Wolfowitz acknowledged "there might be doubt" about an alleged meeting in Prague between September 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and Iraqi intelligence, he asked Meyer: "Did we know anything more about this meeting?" (The September 11 Commission last year concluded that no such meeting took place.) "But there were other substantiated cases of Saddam giving comfort to terrorists, including someone involved in the first  attack on the World Trade Center," Wolfowitz told Meyer, according to the memo.
Meyer wrote that he subsequently asked for Wolfowitz's take on the struggle inside the administration between the pro and anti lobbies for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Ahmad Chalabi's controversial prewar exile group. While claiming he was neutral, Wolfowitz left Meyer with the impression that he was "far more pro-INC than not." Wolfowitz told Meyer that "hostility towards the INC was in reality hostility towards Chalabi. It was true that Chalabi was not the easiest person to work with but he had a good record in bringing high-grade defectors out of Iraq."
The recently released Silberman-Robb investigation into pre-Iraq-war intelligence failures reported that one of two defectors provided by Chalabi's group was a fabricator and another provided information that could not be substantiated. The report cleared Chalabi and his group, however, of coaching or supplying to German intelligence a controversial defector known as Curveball, whose now-discredited tales about mobile biological weapons factories made it in to both public and private U.S. intelligence assessments on Saddam's WMD arsenal.
British national-security aides, in any case, took a far dimmer view of Chalabi and the INC. For example, the March 8, 2002, "options paper"--which asserted the Iraqi opposition was "weak, divided, and lacks domestic credibility"--described Chalabi as a "convicted fraudster" who was nonetheless "popular on Capitol Hill." The memo states that both Chalabi's INC and the Iraqi National Accord, another CIA- and British-intelligence-backed exile group led by Ayad Allawi (the first postwar Iraqi prime minister), were "badly penetrated by Iraqi intelligence," and both were viewed by "most Iraqis ... as [W]estern stooges."
John Markham, a lawyer for Chalabi, did not dispute that some inside Iraq were skeptical of Chalabi before the invasion because he had been forced to live in exile from Saddam's regime for years. But since the downfall of Saddam, he said, Chalabi, who was elected earlier this year to the Iraqi legislature and is now serving as deputy prime minister "has been visibly putting himself at risk in furtherance of the goal of rebuilding Iraq. Therefore, the Iraqi perception of him has changed radically." As for the British memo description of Chalabi as a "fraudster"--a reference to his 1991 conviction in absentia for bank fraud in Jordan--Markham said his client vigorously denies the charges and has filed a lawsuit in the United States that will ultimately show "the whole thing was a sham."
The memos were first obtained by Michael Smith, a London-based reporter who previously wrote for The Daily Telegraph and now works for the Sunday Times of London. Smith told NEWSWEEK he obtained a first batch of six documents last summer when he still worked for the Telegraph from a source inside the British government who he could not otherwise identify. On the advice of the Telegraph's lawyers, the paper had a secretary retype the documents verbatim on separate paper--then returned the originals to his source. Smith received another three documents when he went to work for the Sunday Times. Some of the retyped documents have recently begun to appear on Web sites such as Raw Story, a liberal site that is critical of the Bush administration. Smith told NEWSWEEK that nobody in the British government has disputed their authenticity, and he was even threatened last year with criminal investigation for violating Britain's Official Secrets Act. "I'm struggling to understand why they would threaten to investigate the leak of official secrets if these were not official secrets," he said.
A spokesman for No. 10 Downing Street, the office of the British prime minister, said today, "We would never comment on internal documents." But two senior British officials, who asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the material, told NEWSWEEK in separate interviews that they had no reason to question the authenticity of either the documents published by the Sunday Times or the related documents--including the March 2002 options paper.
The U.K. documents could create more questions for Blair than for Bush. They show that Blair conditionally supported an Iraq invasion despite serious reservations among his advisers about almost every point being made by Washington. According to the options paper, as of the winter of 2002, the policy of "containment" that the United States, the U.K. and other Western countries had pursued toward Saddam had been "partially successful" in that sanctions had "effectively frozen" Iraq's nuclear program, its missile programs had been "severely restricted", its chemical and biological weapons programs had been "hindered" and Saddam "has not succeeded in seriously threatening his neighbors."
The British documents assert more than once--in contradiction to statements and repeated innuendo by Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon officials--that there was, in the words of the March 2002 options paper "no recent evidence of Iraq complicity with international terrorism."
The paper offers "toughening containment" as one possible option for dealing with Saddam, though this approach offered "little prospect of removing Saddam" and would allow him to continue WMD programs and destabilize the Arab and Islamic worlds. "But there is no greater threat now that he will use WMD than there has been in recent years, so continuing containment is an option," the paper says.
By contrast, the paper notes, ousting Saddam, particularly by military means, would be "a new departure which would require the construction of a coalition and a legal justification." According to the paper, however, "Subject to law officers['] advice, none currently exists. This makes moving quickly to invade legally very difficult."
"We should therefore consider a staged approach, establishing international support, building up pressure on Saddam, and developing military plans," the paper continues, adding that if this approach were is taken, "There is a lead time of about 6 months to a ground offensive."
In the end, Britain and the U.S. spent a full year after the circulation of the options paper ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on Saddam, arranging for U.N. inspectors to pursue a new WMD hunt inside Iraq, and building a "coalition of the willing."