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Democrats Investigate Downing Street Memo


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are planning an unofficial hearing today to debate the document known as the Downing Street Memo. It recounts the minutes of a meeting in July 2002 between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top advisers. The memo states that, by that time, nearly eight months before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush had already made up his mind to go to war, and the memo indicates that, in Washington, quote, "intelligence and facts were being fixed around that policy." The White House has firmly denied that, but more than a hundred members of Congress are asking the president for an explanation. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.


The story of the Downing Street Memo broke last month, May 1st, in The Sunday Times of London. At first, it attracted little attention either in the UK or here, but, as the weeks have passed, indignation has grown. War critics say the memo and other recently uncovered British papers are the smoking gun that prove President Bush and his closest ally, Tony Blair, made a secret decision to invade Iraq and manipulated intelligence to support that decision. Yesterday, in Bartholdi Park near the Capitol, Celeste Zappala and a handful of other parents whose children have died in the war gathered to share their disgust with reporters.

Ms. CELESTE ZAPPALA: I stand here as a mother, but I'm also a citizen. This is my country, and I can't allow the things that have occurred and not try to speak for the truth. And we want our Congress to step up and find out what the truth is.

KELLY: Zappala's son, Sherwood, was killed in Iraq last year. Dianne Davis Santoriello also lost a son, Anthony, killed last August. She says the Downing Street Memo is extremely significant.

Ms. DIANNE DAVIS SANTORIELLO: The memo reminds me of the little blurb that appeared in the paper that said there was a break-in at Watergate, and it was a little tiny story. And I think that this is the same thing. So I'm hoping that the media will go after this story the way they did after Watergate.

KELLY: The White House dismisses such comparisons as utter nonsense. Last week, the president and Prime Minister Blair appeared at a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House. Blair was asked pointblank whether the prewar intelligence had been fixed.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): Well, I can respond to that very easily. No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all, and let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations.

KELLY: President Bush agreed and added that military force was used only as a last resort, but the White House hasn't rushed to respond to queries from Congress about the matter. On May 5th, four days after the original report in The Sunday Times, 89 Democrats wrote to President Bush. Their letter asks whether the Downing Street Memo is authentic and whether the White House had, indeed, laid plans to attack Iraq months before seeking Congress' approval.

Representative JOHN CONYERS (Democrat, Michigan): If the Congress had known that the president had already determined that we would be going to war, I think he may not have ever gotten the approval to go into Iraq.

KELLY: That's Michigan Democrat John Conyers. He's the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee and the driving force behind today's hearing. He says 15 more Democratic members of Congress have since signed the letter, no Republicans, but six weeks later still no answer from the White House.

Rep. CONYERS: We've been stonewalled by President Bush. He's told more than a hundred members of Congress, `I don't care what you want to know. We're not only not giving you the information, we're not even going to answer your letter.'

KELLY: But many analysts point out it's hardly news that Washington and London were working on war plans by the summer of 2002 and that preparing for the option of military operations doesn't necessarily mean a final decision had been made. Robin Niblett of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says ultimately how you interpret the Downing Street Memo has a lot to do with your view of the war in general.

Mr. ROBIN NIBLETT (Center for Strategic and International Studies): If you're opposed to the war, then this memo just confirms that your view that the administration had always had it in mind. If you're in favor of the war, there's nothing particularly new or striking in this memorandum.

KELLY: Either way, the story is picking up traction. After today's hearing, Congressman Conyers plans to hand deliver to the White House a petition which he says carries the signatures of more than half a million Americans calling for answers to the questions raised by the Downing Street Memo.

Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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