What Smoking Gun? Where?

We've all seen enough CSI to know that you can't ignore a smoking gun. But the media has so far pretty much ignored the so-called Downing Street memo, which implicated the Bush administration in falsifying intelligence in connection with the plan for war in Iraq. Let's try to understand why.

On the left, it's part of the catechism now that President Bush and his administration lied about the reasons for going to war against Iraq in 2003, and that they "cooked" the intelligence used to inflate the Iraqi threat. The over-baked intelligence was then used, wittingly, to justify claims that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program, vast stockpiles of chemical and biological arms, SCUD missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver them, and, of course, ties to Al Qaeda that implicated Saddam Hussein in the events of 9/11.

On the right, the catechism says the opposite: that the Bush administration went to war in good faith, that U.S. intelligence functioned without political pressure to come up with its way-off-the-mark conclusions, and that not only did the weapons exist but that we might still find them if we keep looking--in Syria, perhaps?

Only one of these catechisms has the imprimatur of truth--which is why, 26 months after the war with Iraq began, it seems more important than ever to get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, just as the United States has given up looking for Iraqi WMD, official Washington and the media have given up trying to see which one of these catechisms is phony. The proof is the utterly blasé reaction to what seems to be a true "smoking gun": the so-called Downing Street memo, based on verbatim U.S.-British talks in 2002, in which the British calmly reported that the United States had already decided to make war on Iraq and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

You'd think that such an important piece of evidence--which emerged in the context of the recent British elections--would explode like a thunderclap here. Yet it took 17 days, from the publication on May 1 in the London Sunday Times, before the existence of the memo was mentioned on the front page of an American newspaper--the Chicago Tribune. A few other papers, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, have buried stories on the inside about it--and the Post's ombudsman provided a too-little, too-late criticism of his paper's less-than-excited (and less-than-timely) coverage of the memo. And the paper of record, the New York Times, has mostly ignored it, giving it short shrift on May 20. That story, by Douglas Jehl, focused on the memo's implication that Bush had decided to go to war by early in 2002, but it nearly skipped over the most explosive part of the story--namely, that the intelligence on Iraq was being rigged.

What accounts for the media's refusal to hammer away at this story, to demand that Bush administration officials explain it, to dig deep into much more detailed British accounts surrounding it and to get British officials to comment, to ask Pentagon and CIA officials to explain it, and to put it in context? (In this case, the context is that in early 2002, the Bush administration was well on the way toward assembling a secretive team inside the Pentagon, supervised by outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, to cherry-pick facts and rumors that were used to promote war.)

First, most distressingly, the media is following the lead of the Democrats. True, John Conyers and 88 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter asking the White House about the memo, but by and large the Democrats took a pass. That's in keeping with the party's decision in 2004, during the election campaign, not to raise the issue of the Pentagon's Feith-based Office of Special Plans and the widespread reports that the intelligence on Iraq was falsified. During the campaign, John Kerry barely touched on the issue, and in the Senate, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller--the ranking Dem on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence--decided not to make a fuss over it. Rockefeller agreed to postpone an investigation into the political use of Iraq intelligence--a code word for an inquiry into whether it was faked--until after the election in November 2004. Then, inexplicably, Rocky let Sen. Pat Roberts get away with a decision to renege on the promised investigation. So the Senate plans to do nothing.

Second, my impression is that the media have collectively gotten fatigued with the whole issue. Always sensitive to conventional wisdom, the media seems to have concluded the story of fake intelligence on Iraq is "old news." It's as if they've concluded they they've done their job, and that those Americans who choose to believe the first catechism have all the ammunition they really need, and that those who choose to believe the second don't want to hear anything more. It's a slam-dunk story: We went to war, there weren't any WMD to be found, and so let the public draw its own conclusions, the media seems to think. Not only that, but it's exhausting to dig into an old story like that, they must believe. The fact that no WMD were found in Iraq is widely known, and Americans pretty much know that the WMD rationale for war was a cover story, so why bother with the details? Why bother with trying to sort all that out? Who has the time or the energy to rehash all that now?

Third, the media have pretty much allowed their investigative skills to atrophy. The Bush administration has stone-walled inquires on the WMD fakery, the seemingly endless parade of Iraq- and 9/11-linked commissions have all avoided the topic, and the Senate Republicans have blocked any inquiry. So the media doesn't know where to go: it's as if they've forgotten how to investigate something--as if they've forgotten how to find second- and third-level folks to help assemble the story, how to background key players in the OSP and the U.S. intelligence community. And doing that gets the administration mad at you. You get snubbed by "sources." Access dries up. The administration closes ranks against you. Do we really want all that grief?

The clearest proof that this is all true is the stunning lack of editorial comment on the Downing Street memo. Where are the thundering editorials demanding that the White House explain itself? That Congress investigate? That a team of senators flies to London to look into this?

It isn't like this scandal involves something small, as if it were one more peccadillo to be added to the list of Tom DeLay's complicated transgressions. This is a basic issue of life and death, of war and peace. Upwards of 100,000 people have died because George W. Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, and $200 billion has been funneled down that black hole. Yet with each passing day, the story of how the Bush administration manipulated, falsified and lied its way to war is getting harder and harder to tell. Pretty soon, it won't be a story for CSI at all. It will be something for the "Cold Case" squad.

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