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The Downing Street Fixation

Fixing to Fix "Fixed"

by RAY McGOVERN

Former CIA Analyst

The Downing Street papers are proving a formidable challenge to the White House PR machine as it desperately tries—in often-ludicrous ways—to slow down a train that has already left the station. And interest continues to build. The leaked British documents are now on the top-ten list of Google queries.

One huge fly in the ointment for the administration was British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s early decision that it would be a fool’s errand to challenge the authenticity of the papers. Why? Because there is still a relatively free Fourth Estate in the U.K. together with patriotic whistleblowers willing to risk jail for exposing the government dishonesty.

This has prevented the White House from labeling the documents spurious. And Michael Smith, the British journalist who was given them has now acknowledged that more than one such patriot has been involved.)

Smoke Rather Than Denial

With Blair forced to acknowledge that the documents are authentic, the White House could hardly label them spurious. Smoke, rather than outright denial, is had to be the chosen course.

Thus, many too-clever-by-half interpretations are now being offered for the eleven words with which the head of British intelligence, fresh back from Washington in July 2002, unwittingly gave the game away:

“But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

This sentence has edged out other strong contenders in garnering honors as the most revealing/damning sentence among many in the official Downing Street papers. Those with stomachs strong enough to have digested those documents know that they show a British establishment desperately trying to place a veneer of legality on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s premature promise to President George W. Bush that the U.K. would join the U.S. in launching unprovoked war on Iraq.

The documents provide a wealth of information supplementing what has already been revealed—like the unsung but powerful example of Elizabeth Wilmshurst, then-deputy legal adviser to the British Foreign Office. Wilmshurst kept insisting that the attack on Iraq could not be squared with international law and would start “a war of aggression.” When her more malleable male bosses caved in to Blair, Wilmshurst did the honorable thing. She resigned.

The information in the Downing Street papers now needs to be collated carefully with evidence (much of it suppressed in mainstream media, but abundant on the Internet and from other sources) regarding what was going on in top policymaking circles in Washington at the time. Perhaps some patriotic whistleblowers on this side of the Atlantic will summon the courage to emulate our British cousins and throw into the mix documents from the American side.

Meanwhile, what seem necessary is to institute smoke-detector patrols to identify and dispel the smoke being blown by Bush administration officials and their surrogates in Operation Enduring Smoke. The task is not difficult. It might even be fun, were not the deceit-heaped-on-deceit responsible for so much unnecessary killing and maiming. The tortured rhetoric of those trying to defend the administration is so transparent that it takes only a puff or two to blow the smoke away. I only quintessential wordsmith William Safire could be enlisted in the bloodless battle of semantics. I find myself wondering what he must be thinking as he watches administration-friendly pundits painfully parsing the meaning of “fixed”—as in “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

Pulling the Woolsey Over Our Eyes

The usual suspects are being trotted out, and it came as no surprise that fleet-of-foot former CIA director and neo-conservative darling James Woolsey was put in at the top of the line-up. Some will recall that just five days after 9/11 Woolsey appeared on Nightline to advocate striking Iraq for sponsoring terrorism.

Ted Koppel: “Nobody right now is suggesting that Iraq had anything to do with this [9/11]. In fact, quite the contrary.” James Woolsey: “I don’t think it matters. I don’t think it matters.”

Since then, Woolsey’s intelligence reporting on Iraq has been, well, spotty. As an intelligence professional I have been musing over what kind of “source description” CIA reports officers assign him at this point. It would have to read something like:

After 9/11, source was assigned by then-chair of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle to midwife reports like the since-disproved allegations of a meeting between 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague and the canard about Iraqi mobile laboratories for producing biological weapons. Source’s strong ideological/political views may affect his objectivity.

In any case, on MSNBC’s Hardball on June 21 Rhodes scholar Woolsey made a frontal assault on the word “fixed.” Taking issue with interviewer David Gregory’s suggestion that the infamous sentence is about “fixing intelligence to meet the policy,” Woolsey countered:

“I think that’s not what fixing means in these circumstances. I think people are not listening to British usage. I don’t think they’re talking about cooking the books…. I think people ought to back off a bit on this notion…”

…and focus more on Saddam Hussein’s “rape rooms” (boilerplate in Woolsey’s speeches, which he managed to include later in the interview).

Other pundits have joined the smoke-machine. On June 19, Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler opined that “maybe ‘fixed’ means something different in British-speak.” And Christopher Hitchens, in an article posted on Slate the same day Woolsey went on Hardball, wrote:

“Never mind for now that the English employ the word “fix” in a slightly different way—a better term might have been ‘organized.’”

Can someone explain to me how this advances the argument?

Some Candor

Michael Smith, the Sunday Times reporter who broke he story thinks he knows what “fixed” means. On June 16, he told the Washington Post:

“There are a number of people asking about ‘fixed’ and its meaning. This is a real joke. I do not know anyone in the UK who took it to mean anything other than fixed, as in fixed a race, fixed an election, fixed the intelligence. If you fix something, you make it the way you want it. The intelligence was fixed…the head of MI-6 has just been to Washington. He has just talked with George Tenet. He said the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. That translates in clearer terms as the intelligence was being cooked to match what the administration wanted it to say to justify invading Iraq.”

I contacted a number of British friends who are close observers of the political scene, to get their opinion. Here is one recent email reply:

“Nobody that I have come across here in London interprets the term ‘fixed’ in this context as other than cooked/manipulated/selected. Fixed refers to trickery—as in ‘the fix is in.’ What Woolsey and Co. may think…that is completely irrelevant. It is what we British think that counts. The memo was written to be read by us British, not by Woolsey. It appears that he and his “neoconservative” friends are getting a bit desperate. He would probably be one of the people to go to jail at the end of this, given the key role he has played.”

Or, from VIPS colleague Col. Patrick Lang, USA (ret), who tends to be more succinct: “Fixed is fixed, man.”

And Finally: A Constructive Proposal

The Washington Post’s Getler did offer a good suggestion; namely, that Blair produce the former intelligence chief and the drafter of the minutes of July 23, 2002 for a news conference or open parliamentary session and let reporters or legislators pursue clarification. Given the seriousness of the issue and the documentary nature of the evidence, my own suggestion would be to subpoena testimony from George Tenet and other senior U.S. officials whose views were reported to Blair—and the sooner the better. RAY McGOVERN was a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He now works at Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour. He can be reached at: RRMcGovern@aol.com

An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared on TomPaine.com on June 22.