Dan Drezner on the Downing Street Memos.
The biggest charge is that the president shaped the intelligence to gin up an excuse for the war. On this point, Fred Kaplan’s essay in Slate does a nice job of encapsulating what I think:
The memos do not show, for instance, that Bush simply invented the notion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that Saddam posed a threat to the region. In fact, the memos reveal quite clearly that the top leaders in the U.S. and British governments genuinely believed their claims….
The implicit point of these passages is this: These top officials genuinely believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction—and that they constituted a threat. They believed that the international community had to be sold on the matter. But not all sales pitches are consciously deceptive. The salesmen in this case turned out to be wrong; their goods were bunk. But they seemed to believe in their product at the time.
The administration was clearly wrong about the WMD threat—but I think they thought they were right. They deserve any criticism they get about being wrong—but they don’t deserve the meme that they consciously misled the American people.
I don’t think that this claim holds; and there’s an analogy that I think makes this clearer (Kaplan uses a version of this analogy in his article, but doesn’t develop it). In many countries (including my home country, Ireland), police have a reputation for stitching people up; they seem prepared in some instances to commit perjury in order to get people convicted for crimes. Now in some cases, this is a completely cynical exercise – the police have no idea of whether the accused is guilty or not, but need to get a conviction for political or other reasons. But in others, it’s because the police think that they know who committed a crime, but don’t have the necessary evidence to get the person convicted in court. Therefore, they perjure themselves and lie about the evidence in order to get the conviction.
This, it seems to me, is what happened in the lead-up to Iraq. The Bush administration, like others, probably did genuinely believe that Iraq had an active nuclear program. But it didn’t have the necessary evidence to prove this, either to its allies or to its own people. It therefore cooked the evidence that it did have in order to make its claims more convincing. It didn’t deceive the public about its basic belief that there were WMDs in Iraq. But it did deceive the public about the evidence that was there to support this belief, in order to convince them that there was a real problem. In other words, it did “consciously mislead” the American people (and its allies). When the police are caught perjuring themselves to get convictions, they should (and frequently do) suffer serious consequences, even if they believe that they’re perjuring themselves in order to get the guilty convicted. That’s not what the police should be doing; they haven’t been appointed as judges, and for good reason. If the police persistently lie in order to get convictions, the system of criminal law is liable to break down. Similarly, when the administration lies about a major matter in order to get public support, it shouldn’t be excused on the basis that it thought that it was lying in a good cause. It’s still betraying its basic democratic responsibilities.