Downing Street Memo And Fixing Around

The Downing Street Memo and “Fixing Around”

At least one commentator has been quoted in the press as questioning what British Intelligence chief Richard Dearlove meant in the Downing Street Memo by the phrase “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The full passage reads, “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

In the story on the Bush/Blair press conference by Mark Memmott of the Gannett News Service writes:

‘ Robin Niblett of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says it would be easy for Americans to misunderstand the reference to intelligence being “fixed around” Iraq policy. ” ‘Fixed around’ in British English means ‘bolted on’ rather than altered to fit the policy,” he says.’

Niblett’s suggestion is not plausible for many reasons. First of all, the phrase begins with “but”. Why say, “But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy” if what was meant was that “the intelligence and facts were being bolted on the policy?” Clearly something was amiss, or “but” would not be used.

Second, for the “intelligence and facts” to be “bolted onto” the policy would still indicate some shady dealings. The only straightforward way of doing things would be to “bolt” the policy onto the intelligence and the facts.

It is true, as Niblett says, that the phrase “to be fixed around” can mean “to be bolted onto.” This engineering site says “The problems relate to the form of construction employed in the early 20th century whereby external masonry was fixed around a steel frame.”

But a policy is not a building and engineering language may not be the best referent.

This British borough site discussing hiring policies says, “Interview times are fixed around family demands.” In this phrase, it is clear that interview times are being made malleable to accommodate another factor. If we say in this context that “intelligence” is “fixed around policy,” then intelligence is being made malleable to accommodate policy.

A British bulletin board on futures trading gives, the “spreads are fixed around live market prices . . .” Here again, the principle is that market prices dictate the spreads. In the Dearlove statement, that would mean policy was dictating intelligence.

An Australian Green website has “We suggest that the penalty should be fixed around the expected price for the more expensive anticipated renewable sources . . .” Here the price governs the penalty. Substitute “we suggest that the intelligence should be fixed around the policy” and it would be clear that the policy would be governing the intelligence.

Clearly, in British and Commonwealth English, the phrase “fixed around” is used to mean “dictated by” with regard to soft subjects such as schedules, prices and penalties. That you can also say that chrome is “fixed around” a car’s bumper is simply not dispositive. Intelligence and policy are more like schedules, prices and penalties than they are like masonry.

I think it is pretty clear what the Downing Street Memo means, on both sides of the Atlantic.

[A reader writes,

“As a Civil Engineer, I can tell you the structural analogy is the most telling.

If bricks are fixed around a steel frame, then it is the steel frame which is substantive and the bricks are merely a veneer to hide the structure.

If intelligence is fixed around policy, then it is policy which is substantive and the intelligence is merely a veneer which is used to hide the policy.”]

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