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Al-Jazeera Checking Facts on Bush 'Joke'
U.K. Official Secrets Act blocks access to memo of Bush's alleged plan to bomb Qatar TV station
William Pollard (will789)     Print Article 
Published 2005-11-28 15:10 (KST)   
Wadah Khanfar, Al-Jazeera's director general, is in the U.K. hoping to meet Tony Blair to ask for publication of a memo in which George Bush allegedly discusses bombing the TV station's headquarters in Qatar.

According to a BBC report, someone from Prime Minister Blair's office stated "We are quite happy to talk to Al-Jazeera as we are to other broadcasters."

The same BBC report repeated an earlier statement by Wadah Khanfar to La Stampa -- "We want to know whether Bush really did want to attack Al-Jazeera last year and was dissuaded from doing so by the British Prime Minister, as the British press has claimed. We will be silent only when we get the truth."

An editorial in the The Guardian has drawn attention to freedom of speech issues. These issues include the decision of the U.K. attorney-general to threaten newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of the memo allegedly relating to a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq. According to reports in The Daily Mirror, this involved a proposal to bomb the offices of Al-Jazeera in Doha.

Leo O'Connor, a researcher for Tony Clarke MP, and David Keogh, a former foreign office official seconded to the cabinet office have both been charged under section 5 of the Official Secrets Act for making "a damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations," as reported in The Guardian on Nov. 23.

They were released on police bail and will appear at Bow Street magistrate's court on Nov. 29. The Guardian speculates that the intervention of the attorney-general suggests that public and press may be excluded from some or all of the trial.

CNN reported that Al-Jazeera has called on the British government to confirm or deny the report. "It would cast serious doubts in regard to the U.S. administration's version of previous incidents involving Al-Jazeera's journalists and offices."

The original Mirror story reminded readers that in 2001 al-Jazeera's Kabul office was knocked out by two "smart" bombs. In 2003, Al-Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed in a U.S. missile strike on the station's Baghdad center.

BBC News Web site world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds said: "An attack on Al-Jazeera would also have been an attack on Qatar, where the U.S. military has its Middle East headquarters. So the possibility has to be considered that Mr. Bush was in fact making some kind of joke and that this was not a serious proposition."

However, the Mirror story suggests there may be less basis for the "joke" theory.

A source told the Mirror: "The memo is explosive and hugely damaging to Bush.

"He made clear he wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere. Blair replied that would cause a big problem. There's no doubt what Bush wanted to do -- and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it," the source told the Mirror.

Another source told the Mirror: "Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men."

A spokesman for Blair's Downing Street office said: "We have got nothing to say about this story. We don't comment on leaked documents."

Peter Kilfoyle -- a former defense minister and leading Labour opponent of the Iraq war -- has called for the full text to be published.

"I believe that Downing Street ought to publish this memo in the interests of transparency, given that much of the detail appears to be in the public domain.

"I think they ought to clarify what exactly happened on this occasion.

"If it was the case that President Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera in what is after all a friendly country, it speaks volumes and it raises questions about subsequent attacks that took place on the press that wasn't embedded with coalition forces."

The Egypt Guide has quoted a comment from Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell. "On this occasion, the prime minister may have been successful in averting political disaster, but it shows how dangerous his relationship with President Bush has been."

The Morocco Times quotes Al-Jazeera about their intention to investigate this story further. The station "maintains a set of journalistic practices built on being fair, impartial, and balanced, and as is the standard practice with every story, Al-Jazeera is going through a due diligence process of verifying the details of the Daily Mirror report."

"We sincerely urge both the White House and Downing Street to challenge the Daily Mirror report and in the event that the memo is found to be accurate it would be incumbent on them to explain their positions on statements regarding the deliberate targeting of journalists and news organizations," Al-Jazeera said.

The Guardian editorial considers that one reason to publish the memo could be to counter the line from recent memoirs that Tony Blair has no real influence on U.S. policy. The main point though is in the first sentence. "It is impossible to know if George Bush was being serious if he did indeed suggest to Tony Blair that the U.S. attack the Arabic satellite television broadcaster Al-Jazeera."

Publishing the memo would give some indication.

The Guardian also reports that a group of MPs including former Tory cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke are calling for parliamentary review of the government's conduct of the Iraq war -- before, during and since the 2003 invasion.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter William Pollard

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