Secret Downing Street Memo leaked

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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Documents leaked from the U.K. government revealed an apparent secret agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom to attack Iraq in 2002. The Times, a British national newspaper, reported that newly-discovered documents reveal British and U.S. intentions to invade Iraq and leaders of the two countries had "discussed creating pretextual justifications for doing so". The documents go on to say that Tony Blair decided the U.S. would need to "create" conditions to justify the war. The leaked document has not received much coverage in the United States.

The document, known popularly as the "Downing Street memo", is a document purporting to contain the minutes taken during a meeting among United Kingdom government and political figures on July 23, 2002 discussing the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Its authenticity has not been officially confirmed nor denied by the government, though Downing Street has stated that the document contains "nothing new." There have been repeated media and congressional requests for clarification.

Downing Street in London contains the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom] (at 10 Downing Street) and is a metonym for the United Kingdom government. Ultimately the United Kingdom sent 46,000 troops to join the United States-led action, by far the largest non-US contingent in the invasion.

The memo comes on the heels of other leaked documents from the UK. [1]


The memo says that it was sent to Secretary of State for Defence Geoff Hoon, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Jack Straw, Attorney General of England and Wales Lord Goldsmith, Cabinet Secretary Sir Richard Wilson, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee John Scarlett, Director of the Government Communications Headquarters Francis Richards, Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Michael Boyce, Head of the Secret Intelligence Service Richard Dearlove, Prime Minister's Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell, Downing Street Director of Government Relations Sally Morgan, and Downing Street Director of Communications and Strategy Alastair Campbell.

The memo was intended to be kept confidential and is headed This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents. It deals with the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, and comes at a point at which it becomes clear to those attending, that U.S. President George W. Bush intended to remove Saddam Hussein from power by force.

The memo runs through the military options and then considers the political strategy in which an appeal for support from the international community and from domestic opinion would be most likely to be positively received. It suggests that an ultimatum for Saddam to allow back United Nations weapons inspectors be issued, and that this would help to make the use of force legal. Tony Blair is quoted as saying that the British public would support regime change in the right political context.

The most controversial paragraph is a report of a recent visit to Washington by Dearlove (known in official terminology as 'C'):

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

This was even more explicitly stated elsewhere in the memo:

The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.
The Foreign Secretary said he would discuss this with Colin Powell this week. It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.
The Attorney-General said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. The situation might of course change.

The main sections covering the ultimatum are:

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors ... If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work.
...John Scarlett assessed that Saddam would allow the inspectors back in only when he thought the threat of military action was real.
The Defence Secretary said that if the Prime Minister wanted UK military involvement, he would need to decide this early. He cautioned that many in the US did not think it worth going down the ultimatum route. It would be important for the Prime Minister to set out the political context to Bush.


A former senior U.S. official called it "an absolutely accurate description of what transpired" during the senior British intelligence officer's visit to Washington. He spoke on condition of anonymity. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair denied that anything in the memo demonstrated misconduct and said that it added little to what was already known about how British policy on Iraq developed.

The US and British administrations have neither confirmed nor denied its accuracy:

  • White House spokesman Scott McClellan, when questioned about the document's accuracy, did not confirm or deny its accuracy.
  • US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, when questioned about the document's accuracy, did not confirm or deny its accuracy.
  • George W. Bush has not responded to questions from Congress regarding the memo's accuracy.
  • The British Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
  • A White House official said the administration wouldn't comment on leaked British documents.


Critics of the war claim that the memo proves that the Bush Administration

  1. was determined to go to war with Iraq prior to considerations of legality,
  2. and with full knowledge that, at best, "the case was slim",
  3. selected and exaggerated intelligence so as to confirm their policy and
  4. developed a plan to manipulate public opinion.
  5. Also, critics say that the contents (such as "Military action was now seen as inevitable.") and the date of the memo, July 23rd, 2002, contradicts the official White House position that Mr. Bush did not finally decide to carry out the invasion of March 2003 until after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell presented the administration's case to the United Nations Security Council, in a speech on Feb. 5, 2003. They also point out that the memo is dated at a time when Bush stated that "we haven't made any decisions on Iraq, but all options are on the table."
  6. Another paragraph has been interpreted to show that Geoff Hoon believed timing of the war's start was intended to influence American elections:
The Defence Secretary said that the US had already begun "spikes of activity" to put pressure on the regime. No decisions had been taken, but he thought the most likely timing in US minds for military action to begin was January, with the timeline beginning 30 days before the US Congressional elections.

Some people suggest that it is clear from the memo that some of those present at the meeting believed that Iraq might possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD) "capacity". However, the memo explicitly states that the capability was less than that of Libya, Iran, and North Korea, and that Saddam was not threatening his neighbors.


UK Prime Minister Tony Blair

When the document was published, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair denied that anything in the memo demonstrated misconduct and said that it added little to what was already known about how British policy on Iraq developed.

US Congress

On May 5, Congressman John Conyers sent a letter to President Bush signed by 89 of his colleagues demanding an explanation of the revelations in the memo. No specific White House response to the letter has been made publicly. In response to the Bush Administration's refusal to answer the congressional delegation's questions, Conyers et. al have given serious consideration to sending a fact-finding mission to the UK. [2]

Conyers has requested 100,000 signatures from citizens (a petition) to request that the President Bush answer the questions in his letter. [3]

White House spokesman Scott McClellan

On May 16, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said that the memo's statement that intelligence was "being fixed" to support a decision to invade Iraq was "flat out wrong." However, McClellan admitted that he has not read the memo, but has only received reports of what it contains. [4]

On May 17, McClellan told reporters that the White House saw "no need" to respond to the letter from Congress. [5]

On May 23, McClellan retracted his statement about intelligence treatment:

"Let me correct you...let me correct you on the characterization of the quote you attributed to me. I’m referring to some of the allegations that were made referring to a report.
In terms of the intelligence, the - if anyone wants to know how the intelligence was used by the adminsitration, all they have to do is go back and look at all the public comments over the course of the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and that’s all very public information. Everybody who was there could see how we used that intelligence." [6]

This has jokingly been called "the McClellan challenge". [7]

US Secretary of State Rice and UK Foreign Secretary Straw

On May 18th, 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw were questioned on the memo, during live coverage of a joint US-UK conference, aired on Sky News:

And if I could, then, ask both of you to comment on the very well-publicised British memo that was leaked ... from the minutes of a meeting that took place in July of 2002 with Tony Blair and some of his military intelligence advisers. In particular, it quotes one British official saying the intelligence and facts that the U.S. was putting forward were being fixed around the policy....

...could you speak to these allegations, in particular, Madam Secretary, and whether or not this is true?

...Mr. Secretary Straw, if you could also speak to the authenticity of this memo? And in particular, you're quoted in here saying that 'The case was thin, Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capacity was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.'

Neither Rice nor Straw answered the questions. The full transcript is available here.

News coverage

The memo was a major story in the British press during the last few days of the 2005 general election campaign and was also covered in other countries. The story had limited coverage in the USA but has recently gained more attention in the American press.

Some have criticized the American media’s coverage of the memo as disturbingly poor.

On, May 20th, 2005, a new Public Editor for The New York Times (NYT), publicly assesed the coverage of the memo in The New York Times in a forum on the their website. He also stated that, due to continuing reader interest, the paper intends to give fuller coverage to the memo. [8]

The lack of news coverage of the memo has also spurred criticism from Media Watchdogs and editors of small newspapers. [9] [10] [11]


Numerous web logs have picked up the story (see blogpulse for a histogram), and a website,, has been created dedicated to informing the public about the memo.


On May 18, conservative pundit and former Reagan Administration advisor Paul Craig Roberts wrote an article calling for Bush's impeachment for lying to Congress about the case for war.


A coalition of citizen groups running the gamut of social and political issues will ask Congress to file a Resolution of Inquiry, the first necessary legal step to determine whether President Bush has committed impeachable offenses. [12] The formal Resolution of Inquiry request was written by Boston constitutional attorney John C. Bonifaz and reported by Larisa Alexandrovna for Raw Story, article available here here. The request states the constitutional grounds for impeachment:

"[The President] has not given [the Senate] full information, but has concealed important intelligence which he ought to have communicated, and by that means induced them to enter into measures injurious to their country, and which they would not have consented to had the true state of things been disclosed to them."

Among the citizen groups are:

  • Veterans for Peace
  • Progressive Democrats of America (PDA)
  • 911Citizens Watch
  • Democracy Rising
  • Code Pink
  • Global Exchange
  • Velvet Revolution, and
  • Gold Star Families for Peace

A website,, has been established for the newly emerging citizen's coalition.


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