Lots of people are starting to question the authenticity of the “Downing Street Memos”: the Alamo City Commando, Captain Ed, and many others. Some of the circumstances are indeed strange. We now know that the reporter who publicized the memos, Michael Smith of the London Times, claims that after receiving the documents from a leaker, he had a secretary retype the documents using an old-fashioned typewriter, and then either destroyed or returned the copies he had originally obtained. Why would anyone do that? Beats me, but the story is oddly reminiscent of Bill Burkett’s tale about how he made photocopies of the documents he obtained after a phone call from the mythical Lucy Ramirez, and then burned the originals. Further, the documents have been “authenticated” only by the Associated Press, which showed them to an anonymous British government source who said they “appeared authentic.” This is essentially worthless as evidence, especially since the anonymous source could only have seen the typed mock-ups.
Nevertheless, I very much doubt that the documents are fakes, for two reasons. First, to my knowledge no one in the British government has denied their authenticity. The “Downing Street memos” are much different from the CBS National Guard documents in this important respect: the CBS documents were ostensibly authored by Jerry Killian, who had been dead for twenty years. The Downing Street documents, on the other hand, were allegedly authored by, and relate to meetings recently conducted by, a group of men who are very much alive and well. I can’t conceive of a reason why they would fail to attack the documents’ genuineness if there were a basis for doing so.
Second, if the Downing Street memos were fakes, they would say more. As we have noted before, the memo that has been most widely trumpeted on the left says little or nothing of significance. What it does do, however, is confirm the sincere worry at the highest level of the British government about the possibility that Saddam would use his weapons of mass destruction either against coalition troops, or against Kuwait or Israel. Here again, the contrast with the 60 Minutes documents is instructive. Those documents were neatly constructed to give the Democrats just what they needed to attack President Bush’s Guard service. They provided the evidence that some on the left thought ought to exist, but in fact didn’t. By contrast, the Downing Street memos, while interesting, are innocuous. If someone went to the trouble of faking them, I would expect him to fake something better.
Given what we now know about journalistic standards in many quarters, and the lack of any meaningful authentication of the Downing Street memos, it is not surprising that some critics are questioning them. But, as I said, I will be very surprised if their content turns out not to be genuine.
UPDATE: Ed Morrissey isn’t convinced; he takes it as proven that the documents are fakes, and says they should also be presumed to be frauds unless someone can authenticate them. Many others are also more suspicious than I’ve been, The Strata-Sphere for example. It may be that Ed knows something I don’t; that is, whether Michael Smith originally presented the documents as copies of the real thing, which we now know they are not. If he did, then the documents are fakes, as Ed says. But there is nothing wrong with making a transcript of a document as long as it is accurate and as long as it is presented as such. If Smith never misrepresented the documents, then I don’t see any basis for calling them “fakes.”
The real question is whether they accurately transcribe actual government documents. There clearly are suspicious circumstances here, beginning with the fact that Smith is a rabid anti-Bush and anti-Iraq war partisan. There is no obvious reason why Smith would have a secretary re-type the documents rather than simply photocopying them. Further, if one were to recreate the documents, why dig up an old-fashioned typewriter rather than doing it on a computer? That smacks of an effort to create an air of authenticity, as does the fact that the documents have seemingly been recopied to make them look older than they are, and, therefore, more authentic. This comes back to the question of whether Smith ever misrepresented the nature of the documents–a question to which I haven’t seen an answer.
So I don’t blame Ed and others for being suspicious. But I can’t get past the fact that no one in the Blair government has blown the whistle, as one would expect if the Smith papers didn’t accurately recount the contents of real documents. This is completely unlike the first hours of confusion when the White House had no idea what to make of the purported Killian documents. Nor, in my view, is Ed’s analogy to the fact that a single, anonymous Defense Department source didn’t question Newsweek’s Koran flushing story when it was first presented valid. We are not dealing here with a single anonymous source who may or may not have any reason to know whether a particular fact is correct. We are dealing, rather, with Tony Blair and numerous members of his administration, who have had a couple of months now to figure out whether someone is passing off fraudulent minutes of their own high-level meetings, in an effort to make them (and others) look bad. I haven’t heard any explanation of why Blair and his colleagues would sit back and allow such a fraud to be perpetrated. It’s not enough to say that the real documents are secret and consequently can’t be made public; that wouldn’t prevent Blair and others from simply saying the reported ones are false, if that were the case.
And, as I said before, it’s hard for me to believe that a reporter would risk his career by producing fraudulent documents that say so little that is controversial.
FURTHER UPDATE: Bush and Blair were asked about the DSM during their joint press conference on June 7. Blair seemed to admit the genuineness of the memo:
Q. Thank you, sir. On Iraq, the so-called Downing Street memo from July 2002 says intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy of removing Saddam through military action. Is this an accurate reflection of what happened? Could both of you respond?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, I can respond to that very easily. No, the facts were not being fixed in any shape or form at all. And let me remind you that that memorandum was written before we then went to the United Nations. Now, no one knows more intimately the discussions that we were conducting as two countries at the time than me. And the fact is we decided to go to the United Nations and went through that process, which resulted in the November 2002 United Nations resolution, to give a final chance to Saddam Hussein to comply with international law. He didn’t do so. And that was the reason why we had to take military action.
That seems pretty conclusive, doesn’t it? “That memorandum” was written before the U.S. and U.K. went to the U.N. If “that memorandum” was a fraud, wouldn’t have this been an appropriate time to mention it?