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Is Climategate the New Downing Street Memo?

Is Climategate the New Downing Street Memo?

By Barton Hinkle - December 9, 2009

Despite an overwhelming international consensus among experts alarmed by the mounting evidence of an impending global crisis, a tiny cadre of flat-Earthers continues to insist the urgent problem is nothing but a tissue of lies dreamed up by a nefarious band of power-hungry conspirators.

We're not talking about climate change. We're talking about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Throughout much of the 1990s and early 2000s, the international community, successive presidential administrations, multiple independent bodies, and leading members of Congress all agreed that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled or was developing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in great number.

From the U.N. to the CIA to the halls of Congress, there was nearly unanimous consensus -- over the course of many years -- about Saddam's weapons programs. Even The New York Times ran a series of blockbuster articles by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Judith Miller about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (reports the paper would later largely disavow).

A few skeptics claimed the evidence for WMDs was too ambiguous to justify the massive government intervention being called for at the time. But they were largely dismissed as cranks and ideological wingnuts. Serious people knew better.

Or at least they did until the invasion was over and the Iraq Survey Group started looking for the stockpiles. As the search dragged on, it became increasingly apparent that Iraq had very few such weapons. Instead of vast armories chock-full of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, searchers found only a few hundred artillery shells, mostly of older vintage, containing sarin or mustard gas. No reconstituted nuclear program. (So much for those ominious aluminum tubes.) No virulent biotoxins. (So much for the UAVs that Saddam supposedly could use to decimate America's Eastern Sseaboard.)

Oops.

The lack of WMDs became a punch line -- actor Sean Penn joked about it during the 2004 Oscars -- and years after Colin Powell's presentation to the U.N. showing evidence for Saddam's WMD program, Katie Couric was still denouncing his performance as "an embarrassment."

Were Clinton, Bush, Gore, Kerry, and the rest of the Washington and international establishment lying -- or simply mistaken? Four years ago, CNN's Jack Cafferty said people certainly thought they had been lied to: "There's a perception in this country that we were lied to about the run-up to the war in Iraq," he said. And he was blunt about how lying officials should be dealt with: "If there was some kind of intent to deceive, then they ought to find out who did it, and tear their fingernails out, and then get rid of them."

Now suppose someone uncovered internal communications, circa 2002, (a) conceding there was no evidence Saddam possessed WMDs; (b) discussing ways of keeping this information out of the hands of its critics -- if necessary, by dodging requests under the Freedom of Information Act -- and (c) manipulating intelligence to make it seem as though Iraq's weapons program was far more advanced than it really was.

We don't have to suppose. In May of 2005, the Downing Street Memo surfaced -- containing minutes of a meeting in July 2002, between British and U.S. officials. According to the memo, the Bush administration had settled on war months prior to the meeting. What's more, the head of Britain's secret intelligence service asserted that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

The Downing Street Memo quickly became a "smoking gun" -- further proof of the proposition that "Bush lied, people died." NBC, CBS, CNN, and MSNBC all drew attention to what NBC's David Gregory called "a rallying cry for war critics." NPR interviewed the mother of a deceased serviceman who compared news of the memo to "the little blurb that appeared in the paper that said there was a break-in at Watergate." By mid-June of 2005, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, more than 100 of his colleagues, and a half-million Americans had signed a letter demanding that President Bush respond to the questions raised by the memo.

On June 16, Democrats held a hearing -- after which the document became (in MSNBC's words) "the infamous Downing Street Memo." By the third week in June the networks had run more than 50 stories on the memo. Even so, many in the media -- echoing the complaints of countless liberal activists -- flagellated their colleagues for not giving the memo more coverage. ("Did American journalists drop the ball on the Downing Street Memo that accused Bush of fixing the intelligence on Iraq?" asked The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz on CNN.)

Reaction to the Climategate memos hacked from the Hadley Climate Center at the University of East Anglia in Britain has been rather different. Sen. Barbara Boxer -- champion, as Denver Post columnist David Harsanyi points out, of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act -- is steamed about Climategate. In fact, she's raised the possibility of congressional hearings to investigate "criminal activity which could have well been coordinated."

But by criminal activity, she doesn't mean the attempt by climate researchers to massage data, hide information from the public, or keep climate-change skeptics from getting ink in peer-reviewed journals. The criminal activity she's referring to is the release of the e-mails.

She's not alone. The New York Times has covered the Climategate story. But it has not linked to the e-mails themselves, on the laughable grounds that they were "never intended for the public eye." Neither were the Pentagon Papers, which The Times went to great lengths to publicize. Nor were the vastly less important private e-mails of Sarah Palin, to which The Times helpfully linked on its politics and government blog last September.

Meanwhile, the three legacy networks have continued to maintain mostly a studied silence about the Climategate e-mails. (On Friday, NBC Nightly News did fret that the e-mails could give "politicians from coal and oil-producing states another reason to delay taking action to reduce emissions.") CNN went with a story late last month mostly pooh-poohing their significance ("2,500 climate scientists all around the world . . . agree the climate is warming and that these e-mails aren't changing that") -- although Jack Cafferty did note that "suddenly, a lot of people are asking what the truth really is." Well might they do so, given the lack of warming during the past decade that climatologists are at a loss to explain.

Both the Downing Street Memo and the Climategate e-mails suggest political pressure led some people in high places to massage the intelligence to fit a predetermined conclusion. ("Politicians say 'we need to reduce the uncertainty,' and I think that's contributed to a certain mind-set," says the chairman of the school of earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech about Climategate. "I'm a little bit worried about that political pressure.")

On the other hand, the Downing Street Memo doesn't provide any evidence that the Clinton administration, the U.N.'s Hans Blix, and Nancy Pelosi were lying all along about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs. Likewise, the Climategate e-mails don't prove that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, NASA's James Hansen, or the analysts at (say) the Goddard Institute for Space Studies are lying about anthropogenic global warming, either. One smoking gun doesn't invalidate a consensus built up over the course of years.

Echoing arguments by the Bush administration in 2002 and 2003, those concerned about climate change say the risks of not acting against a looming peril outweigh the risks of acting, even in the absence of perfect certainty. They could very well be right. But skeptics shouldn't be demonized for pointing out that "everybody says so" is not the same as proof.

My thoughts do not aim for your assent -- just place them alongside your own reflections for a while.

//

Contact A. Barton Hinkle at (804) 649-6627 or bhinkle@timesdispatch.com.

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