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June 08, 2005

Jefferson Morley on the "Thin" Coverage of the Downing Street Memo

Everyone read the elite media's cover of the "Downing Street Memo"--i.e., Walter Pincus in that prominent spot on page A-18? In an online chat, Jonathan Morley muses about why elite media coverage has been so "thin":

World Opinion Roundup: Blair and The Downing Street Memo:

Jefferson Morley: I think some combination of cynicism, complacency and insulation has stifled the instincts of very good reporters. I also think there is also a failure of leadership at the senior editorial level. The issues raised by the Downing Street minutes are very serious. To pursue them is to invite confrontation. This means that 'beat' reporters cannot realistically pursue the story.I say all this way of explanation, not rationalization. There are several natural follow up stories to the Downing Street memo that we should be pursuing right now...

I think its because the Washington press corps is oriented around 'news' as generated by the White House and the executive branch. When it comes to Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the White House and the Congress have settled on the following narrative: that the U.S. government had every reason to fear the nexus of Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, that the intelligence community agreed that Hussein had WMD and therefore war was not only justified but necessary.The Downing Street Memo invites the thought that maybe that was illusory, that in fact people in the Bush administration were having meetings dedicated to figuring how, as Richard Dearlove said, 'fix the facts and the intelligence.' I think its hard to journalist's born and bred in the ways of Washington to contemplate the implications...

I've given some reasons, focusing on the responsibility of the media.But a big part of the problem is that there are no voices in the majority party demanding accountability. Remember, no small part of the growth of the opposition to the Vietnam war were the very serious and informative hearings that Sen. William Fulbright had in 1965-66. It was here that the American people heard policymakers explain and defend their policies. There is no such venue for accountability today...

I understand the temptation of cynicism. News organizations in Washington have lost their bearings but I have to believe that they can recover them. This is a story about credibility and accountability. To me the Downing Street Memo is directly related to the military's recruiting problems. There have been a lot of good stories about parents trying to thwart military recruiters. Once proud to send their kids into post-September 11 action against the country's deadliest enemies, mothers and fathers now hesitate because they don't believe the government's statements on the war.The Downing Street Memo is one reason why...

The Senate Intelligence Committee did not interview Richard Dearlove and they didn't interview many of the U.S. policymakers with whom he was dealing, so we really don't know why he came away from consultation with the administration saying that 'the facts and the intelligence' would be fixed to meet the policy. If Dearlove was fantasizing about the intentions of U.S. policymakers, then the minutes of his meetings kept by the U.S. side should show that. On the other hand, such minutes might confer Dearlove's account. Those minutes, needless to say, are highly classified...

I have shared my view that the story can and should be pursued.If Post reporters don't ask Blair about the memo, they have abdicated responsibility in my view...

There is no dispute about the authenticity of the Downing Street memo.Reporters need to assess its accuracy. Who is Richard Dearlove? Is he a reliable reporter? Does he have an animus against Bush policy or policymakers? What was said in the meetings he attended that gave him the idea that the Americans were seeking to 'fix' the policy. questioning other people who attended the same meetings as Dearlove...

Talk about it with your friendsWrite a letter to your Congressman asking for his/her explanation. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper asking them to print the Downing Street Memo and comment on its significance...

I think Congress is unlikely to investigate until the story is better understood. I hope Blair is asked about it. My two-fold question would be, 'Mr. Prime Minister why do you think your intelligence chief came away from meetings with U.S. officials in July 2002 seeming to believe that they were seeking to 'fix' facts and intelligence to justify an invasion of Iraq? And in your experience was Mr. Dearlove a reliable reporter of U.S. government policy deliberations?'...

The reason that the Downing Street Memo story is so potentially big and politically difficult to address is because it radically challenges the Bush administration's account of the 'intelligence failure' on Iraqi WMD...

No one questions the authenticity of the memo and the administration has provided no accounts of its meetings with Richard Dearlove in July 2002 that dispute his account. If the administration supporters are correct in their claims that there is no story here, then the minutes of the U.S. meetings with Dearlove should confirm their viewpoint...

What's new is Richard Dearlove's statement that Bush policymakers were seeking to 'fix the facts and intelligence' to justify a U.S. attack on Iraq. No Bush administration official has ever said this. No intelligence official, American or British, has ever said this. The question is, Is Dearlove a reliable reporter?Asking this question is not 'trashing the war effort' and it is not undermining the troops. People who are risking and losing their lives on our behalf deserve the whole truth, not just the truth preferred by elected officials...

Well, Fox News is hostile to the story so I wouldn't expect Fox outlets to pursue but, no, I have not noticed a pattern of ownership shaping coverage. It is something worth keeping track of. The problem here is that the normal journalist impulses seem to be checked: Any editor knowledgeable in the ways of the national security bureaucracy can come with follow up stories on the Downing Street Memo that would have nothing but readers. It is time for us to start doing a couple of those stories and see where they lead us. If the President's partisans are correct that there is no story here, then good reporting should show that...

I did read that piece and it doesn't change my point of view that further reporting is warranted. Indeed Robbins raises a useful question that needs to be answered: Did Dearlove talk to the President? (Or Vice President Cheney) And he asks another useful question Maybe Rycroft or Dearlove could elaborate; by 'fixed around' did they mean that intelligence was being falsified or that intelligence and information were being gathered to support the policy? There is nothing wrong with the latter - it is the purpose of the intelligence community to provide the information decision-makers need, and the marshal their resources accordingly. So I read Robbins and I come away more convinced than ever that we need to do more reporting...

The questions raised by the Downing Street memo are very specific to run-up to the Iraq war in 2002. The memo doesn't concern the Clinton administration. It is true that Clinton pursued a policy of regime change against Iraq and used military force and it is clear that he and his advisers used U.S. intelligence sources in making that policy. But no senior intelligence official has said that Clinton and aides were fixing facts and intelligence to pursue their policy. If you have such information, that would be a good story. Please send such information to jeff.morley@wpni.com. All information will be held in strictest confidence...

My job is covering the foreign media, not the White House or the intelligence community. I am conveying to as many editors as possible my own belief that there are stories worth pursuing here. I don't talk about the stories that I am or am not pursuing...

The Downing Street memo was published in the Times of London on May 1. The Times did not identify its source (of course) but made clear that it came from forces critical of Blair's war policy in the senior level of the British government. The story received front page treatment on the Sunday before the British elections, so it go major coverage, even from The Time's competitors. The British government responded by saying there was 'nothing new' in the memo. The authenticity of the memo was not disputed...

We should be very concerned about the implications of the memo. If facts and intelligence were deliberately altered to magnify threats and justify war, then U.S. soldiers who risk their lives on our behalf were deceived. If this is a possibility, the press needs to investigate. A decent sense of patriotism requires it...

O'Neill was talking about pre-9/11 planning. Clark was talking about post 9-11 planning. The Downing Street minutes document the war planning in the summer of 2002. But there does seem to be a continuum there...

The Downing Street Memo has gotten very little attention in the Arab press. I think this is in part because of a wide consensus in the Arab world that, of course, the Bush administration acted in bad faith. I also think it is based on lack of knowledge about how the Western national security bureaucracies truly function...

Let's not romanticize the past. No one regarded Woodward and Bernstein or their sources as heroes when they were reporting on Watergate in 1972 and early 1973. They were out on a limb and much criticized by the White House. Its not a pleasant place to be and reporters are understandably reluctant to go there...

I think it does clarify it. It may be that one of the ways to 'fix' the intelligence, was to remove from positions of responsibility people who might put forward intelligence that impeded the war policy. We need to know more about Bolton's actions in 2002 to know if this is the case. I would like to know: Did Dearlove or his deputies meet with Bolton in 2002?...

What are they afraid of?I don't think Post reporters are afraid of this story.In general, I think reporters are afraid of being used by the President's opponents. I think they're afraid of a secret document that they don't have. I think they are afraid of losing access to high-level sources. Such fears are entirely justified. The reporter who doesn't think about them isn't doing the job right. Of course, acknowledging fears does not require succumbing to them...

I'm puzzled. Charles Deulfer and David Kay of the CIA investigated and concluded that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction in 2003. They were not trying to destroy this country. Nor am I. I love this country and love that free speech is one of its foundations. I am trying to say there's a real story worth perusing here. If Richard Dearlove was way off base in his reporting on the Bush administration's policies in mid 2002, then U.S. government and officials should be able to demonstrate that with more accurate recollections and documents. Your notion that there was consensus in the West on Iraq's WMD is not historically supported. The British officials who met with Blair said the case for war to remove Saddam's alleged WMD was 'thin.'...

Posted by DeLong at June 8, 2005 06:19 PM