What is the so-called Downing Street memo?

Don't Panic!... Your war questions answered

Since 1735, London's 10 Downing Street has been the home and office of Britain's prime minister. Shortly before the country's parliamentary elections last month, British reporters were leaked the following memo from Prime Minister Tony Blair's office:

"Dear Staff: That funny-looking chap with the steam cleaner is coming by tonight to have a go at the those dreadful tea stains on the rugs. Please make sure you've tidied up around your desks before you leave this afternoon. I'll be having fish & chips with Posh & Becks at the Big Ben snack bar today if you need to reach me. Cheers! Carry on, Tony B."

While that memo thus far has failed to arouse much public interest, another Downing Street memo leaked to the press has provoked quite a lot of chattering within the ranks of American and British professional chatterers.

Leaked to The Sunday Times of London, the so-called Downing Street memo is a summarized (or, as they say in the U.K., "summarised") version of the notes that a Downing Street foreign policy aide took during a July 2002 meeting between Blair and several top national security advisers.

The memo made it clear that Blair had decided by July 2002 to join the U.S.-led war in Iraq, even though Blair's public stance was that no decision had been made. The memo states that during the meeting, Blair concluded, "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.."

As we all know now, the "political strategy" that we and the Brits decided on was to talk up Saddam Hussein's WMD capabilities and his military threat to the region - even though, according to the memo, Blair's own foreign secretary concluded in the meeting that "Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran."

The memo goes on to talk about the Bush administration. Drawing from discussions he'd just had with Bush officials in Washington, the head of the British intelligence agency MI6, Richard Dearlove, said in the meeting: "Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD."

Here's Dearlove's kicker about the Bush administration: "But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

Weird twist, eh? The Bush White House's closest ally had reached the same conclusions that the Bush White House's harshest critics had reached, namely that: 1) War was not the last resort Bush claimed it was. The administration already had decided to go to war - as early as July 2002. 2) Saddam was not as urgent a military and WMD threat Bush & Co. made him out to be. 3) The White House fixed the facts to justify the policy.

In response to the memo, Bush supporters downplayed its significance, saying it was nothing new. In a way, they're right.

In 2004, former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said publicly that Bush had been obsessed with Iraq from day one of the presidency. And Richard Clarke, the former top terror guy on the National Security Council, said last year that not even 9/11, an event that had nothing to do with Saddam, could shake Bush's Iraqnophobia. Clarke said that on Sept. 12, 2001, Rumsfeld wanted him to find targets in Iraq even though Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. He also claimed that after he told the president that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, Bush still insisted that he "look into Iraq."

The Downing Street memo is not new, but by dint of its officialness, it's the most damning evidence yet that Bush lied about the war. But will the memo provoke congressional hearings and nonstop media coverage a la Monicagate? Of course not. Unless it turns out that the memo is semen-stained, the mainstream press and the Republican Congress will likely have trouble paying attention.