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Teaching the Downing Street Minutes

Teaching the Downing Street Minutes

The report of a British cabinet meeting held on July 23, 2002 and leaked to the Times of London raises grave questions about how and why the U.S. and Britain warred on Iraq. It deserves thoughtful discussion by every American citizen and answers from President Bush.

The reading below includes excerpts from the British memorandum, quotes from President Bush and other top U.S. officials during the period between July 23, 2002 and the opening of the Iraq war on March 20, 2003, and excerpts from a letter about the memorandum sent to the president by 89 members of Congress. Questions for discussion follow.

Note: The full Times of London article can be found here:,,2087-1593607,00.html.

Student Reading

Here are excerpts from a British memorandum containing minutes of a meeting of the British cabinet titled "IRAQ: PRIME MINISTER'S MEETING." The memorandum is dated July 23, 2002, but it was not published until May 1, 2005, when the Times of London ran it.

Prime Minister Tony Blair presided over the meeting of cabinet officials, who included Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Sir Richard Dearlove, Chief of M16, a British intelligence agency, who had just returned from meetings in Washington with top U.S. officials. The meeting took place about eight months before the U.S. launched the war in Iraq.

"This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. It should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know its contents�.

"[Dearlove] reported on his recent talks in Washington�.Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy�.There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action�.

"The Foreign Secretary said�.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 neighbors, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

Following the public release of this document in the Times of London on May 1, 2005, neither Prime Minister Tony Blair nor any other member of his cabinet denied its accuracy.

Here is a short chronology of public statements by U.S. officials between the July 23, 2002 British meeting quoted above and the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003.

August 17, 2002: "I am aware that some very intelligent people are expressing their opinions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. I listen very carefully to what they have to say. I'll continue to consult�.But America needs to know I'll be making up my mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own country plus our friends and allies." �President Bush

August 26, 2002: "�there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction [and] there is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." �Vice President Cheney

September 12, 2002 (speech to UN General Assembly): "Right now, Iraq is expanding and improving facilities that were used for the production of biological weapons." �President Bush

September 25, 2002: "There clearly are contacts between Al Qaeda and Iraq." �National Security Advisor Rice

October 16, 2002: "Our goal is fully and finally to remove a real threat to world peace and to America. Hopefully this can be done peacefully. Hopefully we can do this without any military action." �President Bush

November 20, 2002: "Saddam Hussein has been given a very short time to declare completely and truthfully his arsenal of terror. Should he again deny that this arsenal exists, he will have entered his final stage with a lie�.Delay and defiance will invite the severest of consequences." �President Bush

January 28, 2003 (the State of the Union address): "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody, reveal that Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own�.The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." �President Bush

February 5, 2003: (speech before the UN) "My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources�.Saddam Hussein already possesses two out of three components needed to build a nuclear bomb�.Our conservative estimate is that Iraq today has a stockpile of between 100 and 500 tons of chemical weapons agents. �Secretary of State Powell

February 8, 2003: "We have sources that tell us that Saddam Hussein recently authorized Iraqi field commanders to use chemical weapons�the very weapons the dictator tells us he does not have." �President Bush

Following the appearance of the Times of London report, a White House spokesman was asked to comment on it and said the White House "does not comment on British memoranda." Later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said there was "no need" to comment on the British meemorandum, which was "flat wrong."

On May 4, 2004, Congressman John Conyers and 88 other Democratic members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Bush about the "troubling revelations" in the British document. They also noted that two early Bush administration officials, Paul O'Neill, Secretary of the Treasury, and Richard Clarke, a National Security advisor, reported some time ago that the U.S. and Britain had decided to go to war against Iraq months before the president sought Congressional authorization for it.

The representatives ask the president to answer several questions, among them:

Do you or anyone in your Administration dispute the accuracy of the leaked document?
Was there a coordinated effort with the U.S. intelligence community and/or British officials to "fix" the intelligence and facts around the policy as the leaked document states?
As of May 16, 2005, President Bush had not responded to this letter.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have? How might they be answered? Are students aware that an exhaustive American search of Iraq in 2003 and 2004 revealed that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, had no active nuclear weapons program, did not seek uranium in Africa, had no operational biological weapons facilities, had no operational relationship with Al Qaeda, and had given no orders to his commanders to use chemical weapons, for he did not have any?

2. Why do you suppose the British memo stated that it was "extremely sensitive" and that "no further copies should be made"? What was "sensitive" about it? Why do you suppose the author did not want copies made?

3. Who do you suppose had "a genuine need to know its contents"?

4. If its contents had been known right away by the British and American people, what do you suppose their reactions would have been? Why?

5. According to Dearlove, what reasons would Bush use to war on Iraq? What evidence is there in the Bush statements and in those of other officials in his administration to support what Dearlove said?

6. According to Dearlove, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." How do you understand the meaning of this statement? What is policy he is referring to?

7. Why do you suppose that Dearlove heard "little discussion" in Washington about the aftermath of a war on Iraq?

8. What specific evidence do you find in the statements by U.S. leaders between July 23, 2002 and March 20, 2003 about "intelligence" and "facts" to support what Dearlove said about how they would be used "around the policy"?

9. The Bush administration might argue that an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee resulted in severe criticisms of the CIA, which, the committee said, had "overstated" major judgments, "did not accurately or adequately explain to policy makers the uncertainties behind" their judgments, made "presumptions" that were not accurate. Do these findings demonstrate that U.S. leaders were relying on flawed intelligence? Why or why not?

10. Following this investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee was supposed to undertake after the presidential election a further investigation into the use and possible misuse of intelligence by the nation's leaders. This investigation was called off by the committee's chairman, Senator Pat Roberts, because he thought it unnecessary. The ranking Democrat on the committee, Senator John Rockefeller, did not agree.Why might a Republican chairman take the position he did? Senator Rockefeller? Who do you think was right? Why?

11. What was Foreign Secretary Straw's view of the case for war on Iraq?

12. In your judgment are the questions asked by the congressional representatives reasonable? Why or why not?

For citizenship

Continue to follow and to discuss this important story with students. At some point, they might be asked to write letters to their congressional representative, their senators, and their president expressing their views and asking questions they would like answered.

If there is a class consensus, students might:

1) draft letters

2) read them in small groups

3) select the best letter for reading to the class

4) decide which letter or combination of letters should be signed by class members and sent to public officials.

Students who disagree with the letters and wish to prepare and send their own should have that opportunity.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Educators for Social Responsibility Metropolitan Area. We welcome your comments. Please email author Alan Shapiro at:

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The BEST teacher I know is Mr. Kerry Hall. His high school course on Iraq, Constitutionality of Invasion?, and other issues is the best all round course for anyone (of any age) Before the Gonzales hearings before the Senate Judiciary I had some basic questions about how the hearings work. Even though I am older than Mr. Hall, he took the time to answer my questions.

I don't think you could do better than to link to Mr. Hall! (I hope there are other teachers like him out there)


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