Are the highly publicized Downing Street memos authentic government documents that show the Bush administration lied about pre-war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction?

Or are they part of an elaborate hoax – akin to CBS’ infamous National Guard memos on George W. Bush’s military service?

Many of the same blogs that successfully challenged Dan Rather’s documents are now questioning whether the Downing Street memos are for real.

With Times of London reporter Michael Smith admitting the memos he used in his stories are not originals, but copies he retyped, the controversy seems to be reaching a fever pitch.

“Until tonight … no one questioned the authenticity of the documents provided by the Times of London,” said CaptainsQuartersBlog, one of the sites behind the Rather scandal. “That has now changed, as Times reporter Michael Smith admitted that the memos he used are not originals, but retyped copies.

The eight memos – all labeled “secret” or “confidential” – were first obtained by Smith, who has written about them in The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times.

Smith told the Associated Press he protected the identity of the source he had obtained the documents from by typing copies of them on plain paper and destroying the originals. The AP showed the documents to an unnamed senior British official who said they “appeared authentic.”

“Readers of this site should recall this set of circumstances from last year,” reported CaptainsQuartersBlog. “The Killian memos at the center of CBS’ 60 Minutes Wednesday report on George Bush’ National Guard service supposedly went through the same laundry service as the Downing Street Memos. Bill Burkett, once he’d been outed as the source of the now-disgraced Killian memos, claimed that a woman named Lucy Ramirez provided them to him — but that he made copies and burned the originals to protect her identity or that of her source.”

The blog asked: Why would a reporter do such a thing? While reporters need to protect their sources, at some point stories based on official documents will require authentication — and as we have seen with the Killian memos, copies make that impossible.

“This, in fact, could very well be another case of ‘fake but accurate.’ where documents get created after the fact to support preconceived notions about what happened in the past,” said the blog. “One fact certainly stands out — Michael Smith cannot authenticate the copies. And absent that authentication, they lose their value as evidence of anything.”

The blog goes on to suggest that even if the memos could be authenticated, “they’re still meaningless.” That they simply do not contain any smoking-gun evidence of lies by the Bush administration or the British government of Tony Blair.

The admission by Smith that he destroyed the originals to the AP was not the first comment he made on the matter. Another blog site, Raw Story, says Smith told its interviewer: “I was given them last September while still on the [Daily] Telegraph. I was given very strict orders from the lawyers as to how to handle them. I first photocopied them to ensure they were on our paper and returned the originals, which were on government paper and therefore government property, to the source.”

Interestingly, it was bloggers who first brought the Downing Street memos to the attention of the world. The Sunday Times of London first wrote about the memos in May. It is the transcript of a Downing Street meeting from July 2002. In the memo, “C”, the head of MI6, said that based on meetings in Washington there had been a shift in attitude and that “military action was now seen as inevitable.” President Bush wanted to remove Saddam Hussein from power and would do so “justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD,” the memo said.

But the U.S. press was not quick to pick up on the revelations. Bloggers in the UK and the U.S. kept hammering on the content.

Then, last week, Democratic members of Congress got into the act – holding an unofficial hearing on Capitol Hill to draw attention to the memos. In a jammed room in the basement of the Capitol, Representative John Conyers Jr., the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, presided as witnesses asserted they vindicated their view that Bush made the decision to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein long before he has admitted.

There were calls for impeachment at the hearing.

The White House maintains that Bush decided to invade Iraq only after Secretary of State Colin Powell made the administration’s case in a lengthy presentation to the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. His argument focused on intelligence demonstrating that Iraq had illicit weapons. No weapons, however, have been found.

Asked about the memo last week, Bush said, “Nobody wants to commit military into combat. It’s the last option.”

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