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2005-06-06

After the Downing Street Memo: The Case for Impeachment Builds

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The fallout from the revelation of a secret meeting between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his senior national security team appears to be growing. We take a look at the so-called "Downing Street Memo" which reveals how the former director of the British intelligence agency, MI6, told Prime Minister Tony Blair that the U.S. had already made plans to attack Iraq as early as July 2002. [includes rush transcript]

It was marked "Secret and strictly personal–UK eyes only." That was the header of the Downing Street memo that exposed a meeting in July 2002 between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his senior national security team. The text to the minutes of the secret briefing was published by the Sunday Times of London last month.

In the briefing Richard Dearlove, then-director of the British intelligence agency, MI 6–told Blair that the U.S. had already made plans to attack Iraq. According to the leaked minutes, Dearlove said the US attack would be "justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD." He went on to say "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Though the revelation of the so-called Downing Street memo initially saw very little attention from the mainstream U.S media, calls for a full investigation, have gained momentum. 89 House members have called on President Bush to answer questions surrounding the memo; Representative John Conyers is in the process of collecting 100,000 signatures demanding that the president address the accuracy of the document.

And Last week, former presidential candidate Senator John Kerry told the Massachusetts Standard Times newspaper that he will be raising the issue of the memo when he returns to Washington this week. He went on to say, "I think it’s a stunning unbelievably simple and understandable statement of the truth and a profoundly important document that raises stunning issues here at home. And it’s amazing to me the way it escaped major media discussion. It’s not being missed on the Internet, I can tell you that."

Since the Downing Street memo revelations, more evidence has come out showing that the U.S and the Royal Air force increased their air strikes on Iraq in the months preceding the invasion in order to provoke Saddam Hussein into giving the allies an excuse for war.

  • Jeremy Scahill, Producer and Correspondent, Democracy Now.
  • Hans Von Sponeck, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. In the late 1990s, he was the coordinator of the United Nations Humanitarian Mission in Iraq.
  • John Bonifaz, lawyer and author of the book "Warrior King: The Case For Impeaching George W. Bush." He is also co-founder of afterdowningstreet.org which is a coalition of various groups urging Congress to begin a formal investigation into whether President Bush has committed impeachable offenses in connection with the Iraq war.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent; John Bonifaz, author of Warrior King : The Case for Impeaching George W. Bush; as well as Hans Von Sponeck, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, formerly.

Looking at this Times of London piece that came out last month John Bonifaz, I’d like you to respond to this secret document from the heart of government, revealing that Tony Blair privately committed Britain to war with Iraq and then set out to lure Saddam Hussein into providing the legal justification. This according to the Times of London, they write the Downing Street minutes, headed "Secret and strictly personal — U.K. eyes only," detail one of the most important meetings ahead of the invasion. It was chaired by the Prime Minister, attended by his inner circle. The document reveals Blair backed regime change by force from the outset, despite warnings from Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, that such action could be illegal. The minutes that were published by the Sunday Times begin with the warning: "This record is extremely sensitive. No further copies should be made. The paper should be shown only to those with a genuine need to know." It records this meeting in July 2002, attended by military and intelligence chiefs of which Blair discussed military options having already committed himself to supporting President George Bush’s plans for ousting Saddam. Can you talk about the significance of this for President George Bush?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Sure, Amy. I mean the reality here is that this evidence from this Downing Street memo reveals that the President may have engaged in a conspiracy to mislead and deceive the United States Congress and the American people about the basis for going to war against Iraq. And they have, in effect undermined and violated the War Powers Clause of the United States Constitution, which makes it quite clear that Congress and only Congress has the power to declare war. Well, it’s not in his power to start a war long before even going to Congress in October 2002, even if that resolution in October 2002 was not a proper declaration of war. So, what we have started with AfterDowningStreet.org is a campaign on behalf of a coalition of veterans groups, peace groups and organizations around this country calling upon Congressman John Conyers, Jr., and other members of Congress to launch a resolution of inquiry formally investigating whether the President’s committed impeachable offenses in connection with this war. Is it a high crime to lie to the United States Congress and the American people about the basis for going to war? That question must now be answered.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about AfterDowningStreet.org and this whole movement that is now developing?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, we have launched this less than two weeks ago, we have already received over 100,000 hits to the website. Thousands of people are weighing in in support of this campaign, and we believe that Congressman Conyers and others need to stand up as they have in the past and urge that this administration be held accountable for its potential impeachable offenses and the President himself must be held accountable. James Madison said when talking about the impeachment clause of the Constitution, that a president is impeachable if he subverts the Constitution, and it is a clear subversion of the Constitution to lie to the United States Congress and the American people about the basis for sending the nation to war, sending young men and women off to their death based on a potential lie. This president needs to be held accountable for that illegal action.

AMY GOODMAN: John Bonifaz, I wanted to ask you about what appears later in the Sunday Times of London piece, it says, "The July meeting was later mentioned by Lord Butler in his report on the use of intelligence on W.M.D. as a key stage in the road to war, but its details have never been revealed until now. The minutes show that Goldsmith warned Blair eight months before war started — that was March 19, 2003 — that finding legal justification would be difficult. The Attorney General only ruled unambiguously war was lawful a few days before the war started, after Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defense Staff, demanded unequivocal written confirmation. Boyce was never shown Goldsmith’s more equivocal advice to Blair and says today ministers failed to give him protection from prosecution at the International Criminal Court. He said, 'I have always been troubled by the I.C.C.,' adding that if British service men are put on trial, ministers should be brought into the frame, as well. Asked if that should include Blair and Goldsmith, the Attorney General, he told the Observer newspaper, 'Too bloody right.'" Can you talk about liability here and what he means?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Clearly, there’s liability for British officials, including Tony Blair under the International Criminal Court since Britain is a signatory to the treaty that created that court. The United States decided not to sign that treaty in part because it did not want to have its officials held liable for any of these kinds of potential war crimes and other crimes under international law. However, it’s important to note that the United States forces used U.K. bases out of Diego Garcia and Cyprus, which if in fact there were war crimes or violations of international law that have occurred, the United States could also be implicated by having used those British airbases. So, I think that we have to look at all of the questions here both in terms of violations of international law, as well as our United States Constitution, and we as a people have a recourse under the U.S. Constitution and that’s the impeachment clause to remove any president for violations of the Constitution, for violations of federal law, and this President needs to be held accountable if he committed high crimes.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill?

JEREMY SCAHILL: To look at the politics of this, it’s very interesting that John Kerry, Senator John Kerry, raised this issue last week and said that he’s going to be raising the Downing Street minutes publicly, and there’s been a firestorm of controversy. In fact, the far right-wing publications, Newsmax, all of these Ann Coulter clique of people have made a big deal about this. John Kerry is going to bring articles of impeachment against President Bush. But I think we need to step back and look at something here. If an honest assessment was done, what we’re looking at is George Bush picking up from where Clinton left off and just taking it a step further. Bill Clinton systematically attacked Iraq throughout his entire presidency. He oversaw the largest sustained bombing campaign since Vietnam. What a Congressional committee with subpoena power should really do is go back and subpoena every military official who’s ever had anything to do with these so-called no-fly zones, bring them in front of Congress, swear them in and ask them, "What were your orders, both given and received?" And what you’ll see is a systematic violation of international law and the U.S. Constitution that was supported openly by Democrats.

And so John Conyers who’s been consistently against these things is the perfect person to raise these kinds of charges because his voting record shows that he has been consistently opposed to it. Many of the Democrats in the Senate and the House have big problems because they supported the Iraq Liberation Act, they supported the pummeling of Iraq, the punishment of Iraqi civilians through these bombings. And I have met people whose children have been killed in these bombings. And that’s what we have to remember. There was a human price here that was very heavy. And we have reported on that on Democracy Now! This is a case of — the media need to follow these events in real time. This was a bombing that was happening very publicly, and it was documentable in real time. And it’s great that now it’s getting attention, but one of the problems that the Democrats are going to run into on Capitol Hill is you need to go back and look at their policies, their positions, their votes. And it’s going to be damning of them.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Hans Von Sponeck here, the former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations. You were in office during some of the time that Jeremy is now just talking about. Can you talk about you being on the ground in Iraq and what you understood was happening?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, let me first say, in addition to my role as the Humanitarian Coordinator for the Oil for Food Program, I was also the designated official for security of United Nations staff in Iraq, and in that context, of course, we paid attention to what was happening in the no-fly zones. And what was quite noticeable is that after Operation Desert Fox of December 1998, there was a very distinct increase in the number of incidents perpetrated by the U.S. and U.K. air forces involving civilian property, involving civilians, and we ascribed that at the time as a result of instructions given by the two governments in Washington and London to allow pilots to operate under what is known as "enlarged rules of engagement," giving pilots more freedom to decide whether to attack an installation or whether to engage in other destabilization attempts in the two no-fly zones, and, by the way, at times also straying over into the fly zone. The fly zone was not entirely without incidents during the time since Operation Desert Fox in 1998.

And as a result of this development, we in Baghdad decided very quickly that we would begin to record these incidents, not as they affected the military — that wasn’t our business — but as they affected the security of United Nations staff, and, of course, the civilian population in Iraq. And that meant that we started to issue air strike reports where we every three months issued such a report for the consumption of the U.N. Security Council, for the Office of the Secretary General and other officials at the U.N. in New York, and we made sure at the time to be discreet about this, not to give it to the press, but to give it to those who had something to do with these incidents. I, myself, would, when I visited New York, see the U.S. Ambassador, see the British Ambassador and hand to them these copies. And I remember on one occasion, I told both of them that, when I gave them a report with pictures, I said, your pilots see it from up there, 10,000 meters above, and this is how we see it on the ground, and it was striking to see the reaction, which was extremely angry and negative. I was told by a British official that all we were doing, we’re putting the imprint of legality, of legitimization on Iraqi propaganda, which was not at all the case.

AMY GOODMAN: You said you were giving this directly to the British Ambassador to the U.N. and to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.?

HANS VON SPONECK: Indeed. When I went there, I handed copies to Ambassador Burley at the time. He will remember, and I also gave the reports to the British mission, to Ambassador Eldon, who was the number two ambassador to Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was particularly agitated over the fact that I was instrumental in having these documents prepared by my security office in Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Greenstock was particularly agitated?

HANS VON SPONECK: No, his deputy, who had been Deputy Manager, which he would always tell you with great pride, of the 1991 Gulf War arrangements, so it led to, in fact, a request to the Secretary General that I be removed because of — one of the main reasons because I was issuing these reports, which the United Nations found quite useful, and I was encouraged to continue to write them.

AMY GOODMAN: So they were pressuring for you to be removed for reporting the effects of the bombing on the ground in Iraq?

HANS VON SPONECK: Well, that, Amy, that I’m afraid is correct. It’s one — it’s not the only, but it was one of the reasons why the two governments felt that I was unsuitable for that position in Iraq. And all I was doing as a civil servant was to relay the cold-blooded facts that arose as a result of these incursions, these illegal incursions, after all, and well, I continued with the full support of the U.N. Secretariat.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about another U.N. official who was forced out. The Associated Press reporting John Bolton helped force out a top official at the U.N. ahead of the Iraq invasion because he feared the official could interfere with the Bush administration’s war plans. According to the Associated Press, "Bolton flew to Europe in 2002 to personally demand that Jose Bustani resign his post as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. At the time, Bustani was trying to send chemical weapons inspectors to Iraq. If the inspectors had been sent then, they would have uncovered that there were no chemical weapons, a discovery that would undermine the Bush administration’s rationale for war." Did you know about this at the time?

HANS VON SPONECK: Actually, Mr. Bustani is heading, or headed an organization that’s not part of the U.N. system. That is, it’s totally outside the gamut of the United Nations. But I think what agitated the U.S. and maybe John Bolton was the fact that he tried at the time to bring Iraq into signing the Chemical Weapons Prohibition Act. And I think that increased — that led to the wrath of Washington and maybe contributed to the decision to remove this senior official of an important institution.

AMY GOODMAN: Hans Von Sponeck, from your position as former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, your response to the Downing Street memo and the documents that have come out since? The significance of the meeting both for Blair and for President Bush?

HANS VON SPONECK: I would say, Amy, that this document is simply formal evidence of what was not a secret since — in fact, since mid-2002. In October 2004, during a meeting with Robin Cook, former foreign secretary of the U.K. in Brighton, I was told by him that in mid-2002, meaning at the time when this memo, these minutes were written, they knew already in London that Prime Minister Blair had agreed with Mr. Bush to join him in going to war against Iraq, and what we see in the ensuing period, in retrospect, now this is — now one can say it — then it was more difficult to discover — but one can say that there was a gradual planned buildup, and it was not a question of a policy decision any longer. It was a P.R. exercise. How do we sell this to the public? How do we get through this to the objective, which we have decided to have, which is to implement the Clinton October 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, which the U.S. Congress passed, which called for regime change? But at that time it was more a regime change from within, using Iraqi opposition, but this of course, all changed on January 2001, when the Bush administration came in and translated into a very clear decision, and that is to go to war against that country. And apparently in mid-2002, the British came on board and this memo that these minutes that are now available to the public simply formalized what was already decided.

AMY GOODMAN: The last 30 seconds, Jeremy Scahill.

JEREMY SCAHILL: I think clearly what’s needed right now is a congressional investigation. This is extremely important. This should be a mainstream issue in this country, that President Bush began the invasion of Iraq, the air war against Iraq a year before he actually officially began it. Months before he went to the Congress, months before he went to the United Nations, and the problem right now is that the Republicans are not going to allow the Democrats to hold a hearing with subpoena power. And that’s the primary issue. But the last point I want to make is that this is yet another case of seeing that, actually Baghdad Bob, Chemical Ali, these guys were telling the truth. And they were saying the Bush administration is trying to provoke another Gulf of Tonkin here, by coming in and escalating these bombings. That’s what Amir Al-Saadi, Senior Advisor to Saddam Hussein said to me the last time I talked to him. Tariq Aziz, the last time I talked to him, said the same thing. They’re sending U-2 spy planes. They want to us shoot it down. They’re looking for a reason to go to war. That’s clear right now, and there are so many pieces of evidence that one can turn to to prove this. This is one of the most rock solid, and it should be exploited by the Congress right now to prove that Bush lied to the American people.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, correspondent for Democracy Now!, was in Iraq almost a year leading up to the invasion of Iraq. John Bonifaz, co-founder of AfterDowningStreet.org, and Hans Von Sponeck, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, formerly. Thanks all for joining us.

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