British Memo on U.S. Plans for Iraq War Fuels Critics

By DOUGLAS JEHL

New York Times

May 20, 2005

WASHINGTON, May 19 - More than two weeks after its publication in London, a previously secret British government memorandum that reported in July 2002 that President Bush had decided to "remove Saddam, through military action" is still creating a stir among administration critics. They are portraying it as evidence that Mr. Bush was intent on war with Iraq earlier than the White House has acknowledged.

Eighty-nine House Democrats wrote to the White House to ask whether the memorandum, first disclosed by The Sunday Times on May 1, accurately reported the administration's thinking at the time, eight months before the American-led invasion. The letter, drafted by Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said the British memorandum of July 23, 2002, if accurate, "raises troubling new questions regarding the legal justifications for the war as well as the integrity of your own administration."

It has long been known that American military planning for the Iraq war began as early as Nov. 21, 2001, after President Bush directed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to begin a review of what would be required to oust Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader. By July 2002, the war planning was sufficiently advanced that newspaper accounts that month reported details of some of what was being considered.

On Aug. 26, 2002, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared before the Veterans of Foreign Wars to warn that "there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction" and that "there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, our allies and against us."

But Congress did not vote until Oct. 16, 2002, to authorize Mr. Bush to go to war in Iraq. The White House has always insisted 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, that relied heavily on claims, now discredited, that Iraq had illicit weapons and was supporting terrorism.

Two former Bush administration officials, Richard A. Clarke, the former terrorism adviser, and Paul H. O'Neill, the former treasury secretary, have written books saying that Mr. Bush decided to invade Iraq by the summer of 2002. But the British memorandum, which records the minutes of a meeting of Prime Minister Tony Blair's senior foreign policy advisers, does provide some contemporaneous validation for those accounts, though only through secondhand observations.

Among other things, the memorandum reported that Sir Richard Dearlove, the chief of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, reporting back from talks in Washington, had told other senior British officials that President Bush "wanted to remove" Mr. Hussein, "through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and W.M.D.," or weapons of mass destruction.

"But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy," Sir Richard was reported in the memorandum to have told his colleagues. One of them, Foreign Minister Jack Straw, was reported to have described the case for war as "thin" because "Saddam was not threatening his neighbors and his W.M.D. capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

The British government has not disputed the authenticity of the British memorandum, written by Matthew Rycroft, a top foreign policy aide to Mr. Blair. A spokesman for Mr. Blair has said that the memorandum does not add significantly to previous accounts of decision making before the war.

The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, told reporters on Tuesday that the White House saw "no need" to respond to the Democratic letter. Current and former Bush administration officials have sought to minimize the significance of the memorandum, saying it is based on circumstantial observations and does not purport to be an authoritative account of American decision making.

The primary observations were those offered by Sir Richard, who had met in Washington with senior American officials, including George J. Tenet, then the director of central intelligence. In the memorandum, Sir Richard is identified only as "C," the letter traditionally used to refer to the chief of British intelligence.

"There was a perceptible shift in attitude," it said, in summarizing the intelligence chief's accounts. It reported his view that the National Security Council "had no patience with the U.N. route," apparently a reference to putting international pressure on the Iraqi leadership, "and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record."