Almost immediately it was clear that this time it would be something more. The place was empty, but my friend chose the most secluded spot he could find. He was clearly nervous.
He wasn’t sure if I’d be interested in what he had, he said. It was about the run-up to the war. “All the Butler stuff,” he said, referring to Lord Butler, who had reported on the failures of intelligence over Iraq .
He thrust two sheets of paper into my hand. It was a “Secret — Strictly Personal” letter from Jack Straw to the prime minister written in March 2002, a year before the invasion.
In the letter the foreign secretary said there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had any weapons of mass destruction worth talking about and that, in part as a result of a lack of US preparation, post-war Iraq was likely to become a very nasty place.
It was, in short, remarkably prescient and would make a pretty good story, I said, with some understatement. Well, I’ve got five others just like it from the same period, said my source. “Most say stuff just like that, or worse.”
The documents covered the period running up to a summit between George W Bush and Tony Blair at the president’s ranch in Crawford , Texas , in early April 2002. At that time the swift victory against the Taliban in Afghanistan had left hawks in the US administration openly briefing that Iraq was next.
Most of the leaked documents were designed to brief ministers or Blair on whether backing the US plans to get rid of Saddam would be sensible and legal. They set out the merits and dangers of taking part. Their gist was that there weren’t many merits. The documents made it pretty clear that it wasn’t sensible, it wasn’t legal and it was very risky.
The document that seemed to encapsulate the problems was another “Secret — Strictly Personal” letter to Blair. It was written by his foreign policy adviser, Sir David Manning.
“I think there is a real risk that the ( US ) administration underestimates the difficulties,” Manning wrote. “They may agree that failure isn’t an option, but this does not mean that they will avoid it.”
When I reported these documents I was surprised to find that there was no real interest in them in America . The story swiftly died away.
Then eight months later, in the run-up to Britain’s general election, with the focus on the attorney-general’s advice to Blair on the legality of war, somebody else gave me further, even more startling documents. They concerned a meeting in Downing Street on July 23, 2002, eight months before the invasion, when Blair was insisting to the public that all options on Iraq were still open.
One leaked document was a Cabinet Office briefing paper for a crucial Downing Street meeting held on the day in question. It said the prime minister had promised Bush at the Crawford summit that he would “back military action to bring about regime change”. It added that ministers had no choice but to “create the conditions” that would make military action legal.
The other document was the minutes of the actual meeting, chaired by Blair and attended by Straw; Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary; Lord Goldsmith, the attorney-general; Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6; John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee; and Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, chief of defence staff. Dearlove, who had just returned from Washington , said “military action was now seen as inevitable . . . the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action”.
Straw agreed with Dearlove. He said Bush had “made up his mind to take military action. But the case was thin”.
After reporting these secret memos, which revealed the dubious manoeuvrings of government, I expected the US press to react. Surely there would be a storm of anger over the way in which the American public had been deceived into going to war? But still there was no interest. Then slowly something astonishing happened. People power took over.
The Sunday Times website was inundated with ordinary US citizens wanting to read the minutes of the July meeting. Bloggers set to work passing the word.
Six ordinary, patriotic citizens with no political axe to grind were so outraged to discover the truth about the path to war that they set up their own website, naming it after the minutes, which had become known as the Downing Street memo.
Another website called AfterDowningStreet followed. People got together to lobby their local newspapers and radio and television stations to demand to know why they weren’t being told about the memo. There were even T-shirts made with the slogan: “Have you read the memo?” With anger over the war growing, Washington politicians finally acted. More than 120 congressmen wrote to Bush, demanding to know whether the memo was true. They held their own hearings to try to draw attention to it. The issue was forced into the mainstream media.
The focus turned to what may ultimately be the most important part of the memo: the point where Hoon said that the US had already begun “spikes of activity to put pressure on the regime”.
Ministry of Defence figures for the number of bombs dropped on southern Iraq in 2002 show that virtually none were used in March and April; but between May and August an average of 10 tons were dropped each month, with the RAF taking just as big a role in the “spikes of activity” as their US colleagues. Then in September the figure shot up again, with allied aircraft dropping 54.6 tons.
If this was a covert air war, both Bush and Blair may face searching questions. In America only Congress can declare war, and it did not give the US president permission to take military action against Iraq until October 11, 2002. Blair’s legal justification is said to come from UN Resolution 1441, which was not passed until November 8, 2002.
Last week one US blogger, Larisa Alexandrovna of RawStory.com, unearthed more unsettling evidence. It was an overlooked interview with Lieutenant-General T Michael Moseley, the allied air commander in Iraq , in which he appears to admit that the “spikes of activity” were part of a covert air war.
From June 2002 until March 20, when the ground war began, the allies flew 21,736 sorties over southern Iraq , attacking 349 carefully selected targets. The attacks, Moseley said, “laid the foundations” for the invasion, allowing allied commanders to begin the ground war.
The bloggers may have found their own smoking gun.