WASHINGTON—The secret British memo of 2002 that reported that President Bush was determined to go to war against Iraq months earlier than he publicly acknowledged will get its first official hearing on Thursday—sort of.
In the closest version so far to a congressional hearing on the Downing Street memo, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., will head a forum examining the document. That will be followed by an Internet-organized rally in front of the White House. Conyers plans to deliver the signatures of 105 congressional Democrats and more than 500,000 citizens on petitions demanding a detailed response from the Bush administration to the memo's allegations.
The memo, minutes of a meeting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had with aides on July 23, 2002, in London, said it "seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action." Bush has long said he didn't decide to go to war until shortly before the bombing began in March 2003.
The memo also says that the Bush White House "fixed" intelligence data to justify the war. Bush's pre-war emphasis on the danger of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction proved to be erroneous after inspectors failed to find any such weapons.
The memo came to light on May 1 in the Sunday Times of London. So far in the United States, it has triggered more of a national sigh than a gasp, but news of it spread quickly on Internet blogs.
Conyers said he's holding the hearing, which will be televised on C-SPAN 3, to uncover whether "there was a secret decision well ahead of the authority Congress had given" on Oct. 11, 2002, to Bush to launch the war. Conyers said the memo suggests that even as the Bush administration "was assuring Congress, they were secretly planning war."
Both Bush and Blair denied such allegations, but they haven't challenged the document's authenticity.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that despite the memo, nothing points "to a deliberate politicizing to get an end result" by the Bush administration. Hoekstra said his committee has no plans to investigate the memo.
The document provides no new information, said Andrew Bennett, a political science professor at Georgetown University.
"The memo didn't reveal anything that wasn't obvious to us who've been reading the newspapers," Bennett said. "It's coming out now in generally declining public confidence in the war, so it's gaining a little bit of traction. It's reminding people of the worries a lot of people have had all along about Iraq."
A series of recent polls found that a majority of Americans believe the Iraq war isn't worth its rising cost. So far, 1,704 U.S. troops have been killed, according to the Defense Department, and Congress has approved $208 billion for the war, according to the Congressional Research Service.
A Gallup Poll released Monday found that 59 percent of Americans support a partial or complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The poll was of 1,003 adults and taken June 6-10.
On Thursday, four congressmen—liberal Democrats Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii and Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and conservative Republicans Walter Jones of North Carolina and Ron Paul of Texas—have planned a news conference to discuss legislation calling on Bush to phase out the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
Conyers, the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, will hold his forum without the full authority and resources normally involved in a congressional hearing. The Republican-run Judiciary Committee doesn't recognize Conyers' forum as official.
Initially, Republicans denied Conyers access to a room in the Capitol complex for his forum, but on Wednesday he was granted use of a small room. Because he lacks the committee's consent, Conyers has no subpoena powers, investigative staff or funds to conduct his inquiry.
Witnesses scheduled to appear have no connection to the memo or to the Bush or Blair administrations. Among those scheduled to testify is Cindy Sheehan, mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004, and Joe Wilson, former ambassador to Africa and a critic of the Iraq war.
Sheehan, who heads Gold Star Families for Peace, said the forum is a way of "calling on Congress to do the right thing, to investigate the memo," she said. "I would hope that we would get an investigation going into the lies that lead our country into war and hold somebody accountable for those lies."
House Democrats including Maxine Waters of California, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and Barney Frank of Massachusetts are expected to attend.
Witnesses scheduled to appear at Thursday's forum:
_Joe Wilson, former U.S ambassador to Africa and a critic of the Iraq war. After his opposition to the war became public, his wife, Valerie Plame, was identified as a CIA officer in a controversial leak to news organizations.
_Ray McGovern, a veteran CIA analyst who prepared presidential briefings during the Reagan administration.
_Cindy Sheehan, founding member of Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization for those whose loved ones were killed in the Iraq war. Sheehan's son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq in 2004.
_John Bonifaz, a constitutional lawyer from Boston who believes the memo's allegations may be an impeachable offense.
For further information and to view the Downing Street memo, see:
www.timesonline.co.uk (then search for Downing Street memo)
(Bailey covers Washington for the Detroit Free Press.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John Conyers