WASHINGTON – A British government memo that critics say proves the Bush administration manipulated evidence about weapons of mass destruction in order to carry out a plan to overthrow Saddam Hussein (search) has received little attention in the mainstream media, frustrating opponents of the Iraq war.
The "Downing Street Memo" — first published by The Sunday Times of London on May 1 — summarizes a high-level meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair (search) and his senior national security team on July 23, 2002, months before the March 2003 coalition invasion of Iraq.
The memo suggests that British intelligence analysts were concerned that the Bush administration was marching to war on wobbly evidence that Saddam posed a serious threat to the world.
In the memo, written by top Blair aide Matthew Rycroft (search), Foreign Secretary Jack Straw indicated in the meeting that it "seemed clear" Bush had already decided to take military action.
"But the case was thin," reads the memo on Straw's impressions. "Saddam was not threatening his neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."
The memo also paraphrased former head of the British Secret Intelligence Services, Richard Dearlove, fresh from meetings in the United States. The memo said Dearlove believed "military action was now seen as inevitable."
"Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD," the memo reads. "But the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy," according to Dearlove's impressions.
"The NSC (National Security Council) had no patience with the U.N. route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."
The memo, which received sporadic reporting in major newspapers in the United States throughout May, has sparked an outcry from more than 88 Democratic members of Congress who have signed two letters to President Bush demanding a response.
Led by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the signatories are mostly representatives who opposed the war in Iraq and make up the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Conyers says the mainstream media have ignored the story and let President Bush off the hook. He noted that liberal blogs and alternative media have been keeping the story alive. "But these voices are too few and too diffuse to overcome the blatant biases of our cable channels and the negligence and neglect of our major newspapers," Conyers said in a recent statement.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan has said there is "no need" to respond to the memos, the authenticity of which has not been denied.
Dante Zappala does not agree. For Zappala, the Downing Street Memo strikes a critical and personal chord. His brother, Sgt. Sherwood Baker, 30, a soldier in the Pennsylvania National Guard, was killed in Baghdad 13 months ago on what Zappala said was a mission to find weapons there.
"My family knows the consequences of the decision they made to go to war," said Zappala, 29, of Philadelphia. He is a member of Military Families Speak Out, a group that opposes the war and, according to Zappala, now has more than 2,000 members.
"I can't speak for what the TV news decides to focus their attention on," Zappala said. "They seem to have a willful deference to all relevant information. I think they've really just dropped the ball on this."
But not everyone believes the Downing Street Memo represents a "smoking gun" and deserves more attention.
"As a smoking gun it leaves a lot to be desired," said Kevin Aylward, a northern Virginia-based technology consultant who runs the conservative-leaning blog, Wizbangblog.com. "It's interesting, but it's probably fourth- or fifth-hand information."
Aylward added: "I suspect the more interesting story at this point, seeing it three weeks later, is who is behind the letter-writing campaign to push it in the media."
Several popular left-leaning blogs have taken up the cause to keep the story alive, encouraging readers to contact media outlets. A Web site, DowningStreetMemo.com, tells readers to contact the White House directly with complaints.
"This is a test of the left-wing blogosphere," said Jim Pinkerton, syndicated columnist and regular contributor to FOX News Watch, who pointed out that The Sunday Times article came out just before the British election and apparently had little effect on voters' decisions.
"In many ways that memo might prove all of the arguments the critics of the war have made," he added. "But the bulk of Americans don't agree, or don't seem that alarmed, so it is a power test to see if they can drive it back on the agenda."
Ellis Henican, a columnist for New York Newsday and a FOX News contributor, said the allegations of evidence-fixing had been made before the 2004 election by former senior administration officials Richard Clarke (search) and Paul O'Neill (search), and while many people believe they were right, it had little impact on the re-election of Bush in November.
"It's a little late," he said of the memo story, adding that people are resigned to the fact that the United States is in Iraq for the long term, regardless of what events led to the war. "We're kind of stuck."
That's no excuse, said Zappala, who argues someone has to be made accountable for the lives lost on false pretenses. "The goal was always to invade Iraq whatever obstacles, legal and moral, were in our way," he said. "I feel that we deserve an amount of accountability by our officials for the decisions they make."