Downing Street memo

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Publication.png Downing Street memo Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Publication date23 July 2002
The first documrentary evidence that the Invasion of Iraq was based on a lie.

"The intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy."

The above statement was made by Sir Richard Dearlove, then Head of MI6, at a meeting in Downing Street of Tony Blair's war cabinet on 23 July 2002. It was leaked to Michael Smith, a staff correspondent on the UK Daily Telegraph, as part of the now infamous Downing Street Memo which comprises the minutes of that meeting.

Sir Richard had just returned from talks in Washington with the then CIA Director George Tenet, so was in a good position to know. His words caused widespread outrage, particularly in America, where the attention focused almost entirely on this quote. But there were in fact eight 'Downing Street Memos' and they contained a whole raft of revelatory comments undermining the US and British reasons for going to war against Saddam Hussein.

The first batch of documents

The first six were passed to Smith in September 2004 when he was the Defence Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph. The main thrust of this first batch was the deep concern among British officials over the justification for the war and the way in which George W Bush was prepared to invade Iraq without any clear idea of what would happen after the war. They also show that there was already a very clear plan, initiated by Downing St, to 'wrongfoot' Saddam into giving the allies an excuse for regime change, which the documents clearly stated was illegal under international law.

The Cabinet Office Options Paper [full text]

The earliest of the documents was a Secret UK Eyes Only Options Paper compiled by the Overseas and Defence Directorate of the Cabinet Office, and dated 8 March 2002. It warned bluntly that

... the only certain means to remove Saddam and his elite is to invade and impose a new government, but this would involve nation-building over many years.'

Without a continued significant allied military force on the ground,

... there would be a strong risk of the Iraqi system reverting to type. Military coup could succeed coup until an autocratic, Sunni dictator emerged who protected Sunni interests. With time he could acquire WMD.

The FCO Legal Advice [full text]

The second document was the Foreign Office legal advice appended to the Options Paper. It had none of the certainty that would be evident in the UK government pronouncements on the legality of the war. Regime change per se was illegal, it said. The UK's position, that Security Council condemnation of Iraq for failing to cooperate fully with the weapons inspectors automatically reactivated the 1990 authorisation to invade Iraq, was "controversial", the Foreign Office lawyers warned. "Reliance on it now would be unlikely to receive any support," they said, adding: "The US have a rather different view: they maintain that the assessment of breach is for individual member states. We are not aware of any other state which supports this view."

The Manning Memo [full text]

A week after the Cabinet Office Options Paper was distributed, Sir David Manning, the Prime Minister's Foreign Policy Adviser, flew to Washington for talks with President Bush's National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. He sent a memo to Tony Blair on his talks warning that the US seemed to have no idea what would happen after the war.

"There is a real risk that the Administration underestimates the difficulties. They may agree that failure isn't an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it."
Sir David Manning, Tony Blair's Foreign Policy Adviser.

The Meyer Memo [full text]

Shortly after arriving back in London, Sir David received a letter from Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador in Washington, who had discussed the need to create a legal justification for invading Iraq with Paul Wolfowitz, US Deputy Defence Secretary, over Sunday lunch in the ambassador's residence. {{QB| "We backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option. I then went through the need to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and the UNSCRs [UN Security Council Resolutions]. If all this could be accomplished skilfully, we were fairly confident that a number of countries could come on board." - Sir Christopher Meyer, UK ambassador to the USA.

The Ricketts Memo [full text]

"The truth is that what has changed is not the pace of Saddam Hussein's WMD programmes, but our tolerance of them post-11 September."
- Sir Peter Ricketts, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Political Director.

Blair and Bush were due to discuss Iraq at the Crawford summit on 6 and 7 April 2002. So Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, who would need to advise the Prime Minister on how to handle the talks, asked Peter Ricketts, the Foreign Office Political Director to provide him with a full briefing. Ricketts contemptuously dismissed US attempts to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks in order to sell the war to the US electorate:

"US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and al-Qa'ida is so far frankly unconvincing. Military operations need clear and compelling military objectives. For Iraq, regime change: does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam."

The Straw Letter [full text]

Straw's advice, in his subsequent letter to Blair dated 25 March 2002, the last of the first batch of six documents, was certainly not that the Prime Minister should agree to go to war:

"If 11 September had not happened, it is doubtful that the US would now be considering military action against Iraq......
There has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with UBL [Osama bin Laden] and al-Qa'ida."

Straw also made what was perhaps the most prescient comment in any of the documents and, given the appalling situation in post-war Iraq, is one of the most relevant today:

"What will this action achieve? There seems to be a larger hole in this than on anything. Most of the assessments from the US have assumed regime change as a means of eliminating Iraq's WMD threat. But none has satisfactorily answered how that regime change is to be secured, and how there can be any certainty that the replacement regime will be better. Iraq has had no history of democracy so no-one has this habit or experience."
Jack Straw, British Foreign Secretary, 25 March 2002.

The second batch of documents

The second batch of documents was leaked to Smith in the run-up to the general election that took place on 5 May 2002. Smith was then writing for the London Sunday Times. There were three documents, one was the Foreign Office legal advice that he had received as part of the previous batch of documents. The first of the other two was a Cabinet Office briefing paper, dated 21 July 2002 and prepared for a key meeting of Blair's war cabinet which was to take place at 10 Downing St, the Prime Minister's official residence, two days later.

The Cabinet Office Briefing Paper [full text]

This document, although widely ignored, was by far the most important of the Downing Street Memos. It made the stunning revelation that Blair and Bush had agreed to invade Iraq at the Crawford summit on 6/7 April 2002, six months before the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1441, which the British Prime Minister said legalized the war, and five months before Congress authorized military action:

"When the Prime Minister discussed Iraq with President Bush at Crawford in April he said that the UK would support military action to bring about regime change."
Cabinet Office Briefing Paper dated 21 July 2002

Arguably, this was the most important point made in any of the Downing Street Memos and although it was the Sunday Times lead when it broke the story, its significance was largely ignored by both the UK and US media. Even those who chose to write articles said the memos showed that Blair and Bush had agreed to go to war in July.

If you still believe that read the above quote again.

Blair and Bush agreed in April 2002 to use military force to bring about regime change. Blair did impose a number of conditions: that efforts had been made to construct a coalition/shape public opinion; that the Israel-Palestine Crisis was quiet; and that the options for action to eliminate Iraq's WMD through the UN weapons inspectors had been exhausted.

The last of those conditions did not of course take place. But more to the point, and regardless of the conditions, Blair had agreed to do something that was illegal under international law, without the knowledge of Parliament or many members of his own cabinet. The briefing paper repeated the concerns of UK officials over the lack of preparedness for post-war Iraq.

"The US Government's military planning for action against Iraq is proceeding apace. But, as yet, it lacks a political framework. In particular, little thought has been given to creating the political conditions for military action, or the aftermath and how to shape it. A post-war occupation of Iraq could lead to a protracted and costly nation-building exercise. As already made clear, the US military plans are virtually silent this point."

It also repeated the concerns over the legality of an invasion aimed at regime change, warned ministers that it did not matter what they decided to do - because US plans already assumed the use of British bases for an invasion, so they would be legally implicated anyway, and admitted that they would have to 'create' the conditions that would make it legal by securing a UN ultimatum to Iraq to give up his weapons:

"Regime change per se is illegal under international law. US plans assume, as a minimum, the use of British bases in Cyprus and Diego Garcia. This means that legal base issues would arise virtually whatever option Ministers choose with regard to UK participation. It is necessary to create the conditions in which we could legally support military action."

The Downing Street Minutes [full text]

The last of the Downing Street Memos, and the one that caused the most stir both in Britain and more particularly the United States, was the minutes of the meeting of Blair's war cabinet, held in 10 Downing St on 23 July 2002.

The most famous quote came from Sir Richard Dearlove, the Chief of MI6, who reported back on his recent talks in Washington, the memo said.

"There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, though military action, justified by the conjunction of "terrorism" and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action."

Jack Straw worried that the evidence against Iraq was thin and stressed the need to go to the UN:

"It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors."

Lord Goldsmith, who as Attorney-General was the UK government's chief legal adviser, repeated the point that "the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action." There were three possible legal bases: "self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case."

Tony Blair, who of course had already committed Britain to war regardless of the legality, said:

"It would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. If the political context were right, people would support regime change. The two key issues were whether the military plan worked and whether we had the political strategy to give the military plan the space to work."

Geoff Hoon, the British Defence Secretary, revealed that the US had already begun "spikes of activity to put pressure on the regime", a reference to increased activity by US, and in fact UK, aircraft patrolling the no-fly zones over Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld, Hoon's US counterpart, had ordered the increased attacks on Iraqi military installations in May 2002 in what we now know was the start of an illegal air war against Iraq which began four months before Congress authorized military action and five months before the UN passed Resolution 1441, which the British used to justify war.

New Statement from Lord Goldsmith 25 May 2006 [full text]

Attorney General Lord Goldsmith was required, under freedom of information laws, to give more details about how he reached his advice that the Iraq war was legal. The "disclosure statement" from his office was published on the BBC Website on 25 May 2006 [1]

Related Files and Documents

Document Corresponding .pdf
Downing Street Minutes 23 July 2002 File:DowningStreetMemo.pdf
Iraq-Legal Background File:Legalbackground.pdf
Iraq Options 8 March 2002 File:Iraqoptions.pdf
Manning Memo 14 March 2002 File:Manning.pdf
Document:Meyer Memo 18 March 2002 File:Meyermemo.pdf
Peter Ricketts Memo 22 March 2002 File:Ricketts.pdf
Jack Straw Memo 25 March 2002 File:Straw.pdf
New Goldsmith Statement 25 May 2006 No pdf

Other documents


  • The above text is taken largely from Michael Smith's Web site [2] with appropriate reformatting to accomodate the MediaWiki platform and some minor changes reflecting the passage of time
  • The Downing Street Memos web site [3] is another major source of the information contained in this article and related pages and document. Particularly useful additional resources are a searchable database and a comprehensive timeline.


Related Documents

TitleTypePublication dateAuthor(s)Description
Document:Downing Street Minutes 23 July 2002memo23 July 2002Matthew RycroftThe text of a memo written by Matthew Rycroft, a Downing Street foreign policy aide in July 2002 and addressed to David Manning, then foreign policy advisor to Tony Blair who appointed him Ambassador to the US in 2003. Published on 1 May 2005
Document:Inteview with Michael Smithinterview27 July 2005Michael Smith
Document:Iraq Options 8 March 2002memo8 March 2002Overseas and Defence Secretariat
Document:Iraq-Legal Backgroundlegal document19 June 2005UK/FCOOne of a collection of related leaked documents, this legal advice was appended as Annex A to the Cabinet Office briefing paper on Iraq of July 21, 2002. It was originally written in March 2002
Document:Meyer Memo 18 March 2002memo18 March 2002Christopher Meyer
Document:New Goldsmith Statementarticle25 May 2006Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya
Document:Wilmshurst Resignation Letterletter18 March 2002Elizabeth WilmshurstLetter of resignation from her position as a UK Foreign Office legal adviser over the issue of the legality of military action against Iraq in the absence of a specific UNSC resolution authorising it
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