Video: Bush and Blair war bound from beginning

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updated 3/28/2006 1:54:39 PM ET 2006-03-28T18:54:39

The “New York Times” reported that a secret memo shows President Bush and Prime Minister Blair were set on an unswerving path to war, even as they publicly kept the door open to negotiations at least six weeks before the war began. 

The memo is a summary of a meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, on January 31, 2003.  Highlights of the memo appear in the new edition of the book “Lawless World” by Philippe Sands.  This new edition is out in Great Britain, but currently not here in the U.S., as of yet. 

Author Philippe Sands discussed the memo with Chris Matthews.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL":  The implications of this are strong.  If we were telling Saddam Hussein to lay all his weapons out, all on a lawn somewhere where we could see them before we would call off the dogs, and he didn’t have the weapons to show us, how was war to be avoided? 

PHILIPPE SANDS, AUTHOR, “LAWLESS WORLD”:  Well, Chris, that’s a very powerful point.  I think what the memo makes clear is two things.  First, the decision to go to war was taken by the end of January 2003, as your report said, irrespective of whether or not weapons were found. 

And secondly, more significantly, I think, the memo makes clear that the president and the prime minister had no real hard evidence of their own as to weapons of mass destruction.  And that’s why they began to engage in discussions as to possible ways of provoking Saddam Hussein into, for example, attacking U.S. planes painted in U.N. colors.

And all of this suggests that the actual material that the president and the prime minister had was very limited indeed. 

MATTHEWS:  Why do you believe Bush and Blair, based on your reporting, that those two heads of government wished to go to war? 

SANDS:  Well, that is a terrific $64 million question, and here in London, there is still a great deal of puzzlement as to why the British prime minister joined in.  As far as the United States is concerned, it seems clear that a decision was taken very early, some reports suggest in the hours after 9/11.  And having been in New York on 9/11, I can quite see the passions were high.

But as passions cooled and the cool light of day emerged, those feelings were promoted.  I think by March 2002, a decision had been taken, probably I think to show that the U.S. was tough on terrorism, tough on the causes of terrorism.  And the easiest target was Iraq, as it turned out, it was the wrong target. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, our president, as you may have noticed in the last week, has denied ever claiming an Iraqi participation in 9/11.  Were you surprised that he is now denying that he ever implied that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11? 

SANDS:  Well, I mean, this is a president who seems to have a rather selective memory and a rather selective relationship with issues of competence.  One of the most striking things I discovered in the memorandum was that when asked by the British prime minister what his plans were for once the real war was over, the U.S. President Mr. Bush replied, that he didn’t think there was going to be any strife, there wasn’t going to be any sort of insurgency.

So what we’re having here, and I listened to what Scott McClellan said, is a rewriting of history.  When all of the material emerges, it will I fear not show either the U.S. president or the British prime minister in a very good light. 

MATTHEWS:  Well let’s talk about these things in order, because you’re an expert now, having written this book and updating it now with this new full look at this memorandum. 

What struck me in the memorandum again today was that the vice president, rather, the president of the United States, George W. Bush, had decided to go to war with Iraq before completing the inspections; and had decided to do so before sending the Secretary of State and a skeptic, I must say, Colin Powell, to the United Nations. 

What is the significance of that?  That he made the decision as recorded by David Manning, who was working for the prime minister at the time, before either of those events occurred, the U.N. presentation, which was apparently to sell Europe on the fact that there were weapons of mass destruction, and the completion of the weapons inspections themselves. Both were not waited for.  The president decided to go to war before that and so did Tony Blair apparently. 

SANDS:  Well, there’s now no shred of doubt and there’s been no denial, you will have noticed, as to the contents of the memorandum, that the decision was indeed taken in January before Colin Powell went. 

In fact, one other aspect that I’ve described in my book, “Lawless World” that hasn’t emerged so much in “The New York Times” is another memo, which records a conversation between Colin Powell and his counterpart in the United Kingdom, Jack Straw, which makes it clear that in Colin Powell’s eyes if there wasn’t enough evidence for a second security council resolution, then there wasn’t enough evidence to justify the U.S. going in alone.

So Colin Powell was spot on, but it seems he was overridden by a president and others in the administration, who were absolutely committed to taking the United States to war, tragically in erroneous circumstances, irrespective of what the inspectors found. 

MATTHEWS:  The second thing you point out is that in that conversation they had in January 31, of 2003, several months before we went to Iraq, was that they had no notion whatever that there was going to be this incipient civil war we’re watching right now in Iraq.  That they were they told by people like, oh, who were the people over there, was it the Iraqi National Congress folk who were telling this, the neoconservatives, who was telling the president that Iraq would naturally come together as one country of after the fall of Saddam? 

SANDS:  Well, this is a very important question, Chris, and this goes to issues of competence and why, frankly, I think in both Britain and The United States, there needs to be a full investigation of the road to war, which has not happened. 

It is not correct to say they had no notion that there wouldn’t be an insurgency and there wouldn’t be internecine strife.  The memo reports the view of the president to that effect, but in fact, we know that they had received clear advice from people who know the region in the State Department, from people who know the region in the Foreign Office, in London, that precisely what has happened was going to happen. 

I can direct you to reams of document in the public domain of people saying this is where it’s going to go wrong, so it’s not that the president hadn’t been advised.  He had been told and he chose to override. 

MATTHEWS:  He may have had some help in this regard, Mr. Sands.  A passage in a new book, your book is called “Lawless World.”  This other book by Bernard Trainor, “Cobra Two,” describes a phone call from then Vice President Elect Cheney to then Defense Secretary William Cohen regarding Iraq.  This phone call came soon after the debate by the Supreme Court when they gave the election to President Bush after the Florida dispute. 

Here’s what Cohen received, a call from the vice president, Cheney.  Here’s what he said, he said that he wanted to see one thing.  He did not want to see a tour of the world or all the potential threats to our country, he wanted to get a briefing for the new president, his partner, George W. Bush, on one topic, Iraq.  That’s all he wanted.

I talked to Bill Cohen a number of times on this, and he said it was breathtaking.  All the vice president wanted to know about, he didn’t care about the world all around the globe, the only thing he cared about was Iraq.  He was already honing in on that decision in December of 2000.  What does that tell you? 

SANDS:  Well, I think it tells us that all of this is completely consistent with the materials that emerged, the Downing Street Memo of July 2002, and now this White House meeting memo of January 2003, that an early decision was taken, and I think what it raises is fundamental questions about competence. 

It raises, in my view, fundamental questions of legality, but also more importantly perhaps for the president’s purpose, incompetence.  We face other threats.  I’m absolutely convinced, for example, that the situation in Iran is altogether more serious than it ever was in Iraq.  But what we now have is two leaders, Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair, who have effectively taken our two countries to war on a false prospectus and now have undermined the trust that is needed at a time of real threat for the United States and real threat for Britain, and that’s why I think the situation today is extremely serious. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, in this country, we have been given so many reasons for this war, that have turned out not to be accurate, so many prediction that have turned out to be inaccurate that we still wonder really deep down, why did this president go to war in Iraq. 

We know the vice president was raring to go, we know that Wolfowitz was raring to go.  We don’t know, by the way, whether Rumsfeld was even asked by the president, because I asked him once, did the president ask your opinion, and he said, funny thing, he’s never asked me whether we should go to war or not. 

It’s still tricky to figure out when and why our president, much less your prime minister over there, decided to go to war, because all the reasons they have given and all the predictions they have made, have not come to anything.  Anyway, thank you for very much.  The book is called “Lawless World.”  Is it going to be on sale over here soon? 

SANDS:  It’s coming to the U.S. in the new additional.  So, absolutely, with more material I hope. 

MATTHEWS:  Great.  Thank you, sir.

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