Did Bush really mean it when he said he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera?
The original sources quoted in the British tabloid The Mirror
disagree over whether this was meant as a joke. While Tony
Blair's office declined all comment, the White House reacted
angrily. Significantly, however, it did not quite deny the existence
of the memo altogether. "We are not interested in dignifying
something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response,"
declared White House spokesman Scott McClellan.
But how inconceivable is it that George Bush might bomb a news
network? The American administration has bombed TV stations
on several occasions in the past, sometimes deliberately. During
the invasion of Afghanistan for example, two coalition bombs
landed on the Al Jazeera bureau.
Initially the Pentagon denied the attack had been deliberate.
"The US military does not and will not target media. We
would not, as a policy, target news media organizations—it
would not even begin to make sense," said a spokesman from
US Central Command.
Then, following a BBC investigation, the Pentagon changed its
story. US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Public Affairs
Rear Admiral Craig Quigley told Nick Gowing, a presenter for
BBC World, that the Pentagon did not regret the incident because
the bureau had "military significance". According
to Quigley, the bureau was "at the time, a facility used
by Al Qaeda."
General Tommy Franks, commander of the US operations in Afghanistan,
later wrote a letter to the New York based Committee to Protect
Journalists about the incident, in which he confirmed that the
bureau “had been monitored for a significant time and
had repeatedly been the location of significant Al Qaeda activity".
No evidence was supplied to support any of these allegations.
On April 8, 2003, during the last days of the invasion of Iraq,
a US A10 “tank killer” aircraft fired two missiles
at the roof of the Al Jazeera Baghdad bureau. Al Jazeera correspondent
and producer Tareq Ayyoub was killed by shrapnel. Remarkably,
this is the only time a journalist has been killed by US forces
in Iraq, there has been no military investigation into his killing.
An investigation into the shelling of the Palestine hotel, which
happened the same day, concluded that US forces bore "no
fault or negligence."
“There has still been no US investigation into the death
of Tareq, although all the major press freedom organizations
like Committee to Protect Journalists and International Federation
of Journalists have repeatedly called for one,” said an
Al Jazeera spokeswoman.
However Dima Tareq Tahboub and the inheritance of Tareq Ayoub
are launching a legal case against the US government over the
wrongful death of Tareq to obtain compensation for moral and
But it’s not only Al Jazeera under attack. In April 1999,
NATO laser-guided missiles ploughed into the Serbian television
headquarters, killing dozens. Over a hundred civilian staff
were working inside at the time. Dozens of other journalists
have been killed in Iraq from many different news organizations.
On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq the Committee
to Protect Journalists published research showing that 67 journalists
had been killed since the war started on March 20, 2003. American
soldiers killed 14, although there is no evidence to suggest
these deaths were deliberate, and insurgents killed many more.
But the revelations about the memo are particularly troubling
because the Bush administration has singled out Al Jazeera for
special treatment so many times in the past. Besides bombing
it, they have closed the network’s bureau down in Iraq
(albeit through the Iraqi Governing Council) and according to
the lawyer of Sami al-Haj, the Al Jazeera journalist imprisoned
without charge in Guantanamo Bay Cuba, the American administration
has also gone to considerable lengths to push him to spy on
his former employers.
So what is the background to this mysterious memo, and what
is the context within which it first appeared?
The story starts in April 2004, when Al Jazeera was the only
international news organization within Fallujah. American troops
were laying siege to the city, which has a population of about
300,000 people. Correspondent Ahmed Mansour and two cameramen
were inside, transmitting about 30 to 50 minutes of exclusive
live footage each day, including graphic pictures of dead women
and children. Such images contradicted what we were hearing
from the US military spokesmen at the same time.
For example, while the American media were reporting that Iraqi
civilians were being allowed to leave because there was a ceasefire,
Al Jazeera was reporting that US airplanes were still relentlessly
bombing them. Most controversially of all, Al Jazeera alleged
that American soldiers were targeting civilians—something
independently corroborated by other sources, including AFP news
agency—but strenuously denied by the US military.
US officials publicly and vigorously attacked Al Jazeera during
the Fallujah assault, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and
Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who accused its correspondents
of aiding the rebels.
The following August, Al Jazeera was banned from Iraq. Despite
protests from press freedom and democracy groups, the Bush administration
had no objections. Al Jazeera, it was alleged, knew about attacks
against coalition troops before they happened, though no evidence
was produced to support this claim. The Iraqi Governing Council
claimed such evidence was gathered, but then held back, since
it was said to contain “sensitive information.”
I was in Washington in April 2004, interviewing senior members
of the Bush administration in the course of researching my book
about Al Jazeera. I spoke with several members of the Bush administration
staff, and looking back at the notes I took at the time, I am
struck by the palpable anger they felt towards the network.
The State Department told me Al Jazeera was spreading violence
and validating terrorism. The Pentagon assured me they had secret
evidence that Al Jazeera was in league with terrorists in Iraq.
The American Enterprise Institute told me they could foresee
advocating the US government to bring about the physical destruction
of Al Jazeera.
The first time news of the memo became public was in November
2005, when the Daily Mirror revealed its existence.
According to the Mirror report, on April 16, 2004,
President Bush suggested to Prime Minister Blair that it might
be a good idea to bomb Al Jazeera headquarters in Qatar.
Following this report, Al Jazeera’s Managing Director
Wadah Khanfar promptly flew to London to lodge his complaint
in person. Unfortunately for him, Tony Blair was in the Caribbean
at the time, giving Her Majesty’s Government the perfect
excuse to refuse Khanfar an audience with the Prime Minister.
News followed that two civil servants were to be prosecuted
over the leak of the document: David Keogh, who worked at the
Cabinet Office, and Leo O’Connor, a researcher for Labour
M.P. Tony Clarke. Rather than try and sue the Mirror
for breach of confidence, which would doubtless have evoked
a cast iron public-interest defense, the government decided
to invoke the recently updated Official Secrets Act.
Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act states that a crown servant
is guilty of a criminal offence if he or she makes a damaging
disclosure relating to international relations without lawful
authority, where they came by that information because of their
position in government. Also, under section 5, a person who
receives such information from such a person is guilty of a
criminal offence if he or she then discloses it knowing it is
protected under the OSA.
The Mirror never revealed how it came by the memo.
David Keogh, presumably, came across it as part of his work
within the Cabinet Office and then allegedly passed it on to
Leo O’Connor, who in turn handed it to his boss, Tony
Clarke. Tony Clarke shared the memo with Labour M.P. Peter Kilfoyle,
on the basis that since Kilfoyle was an ex-Defense Minister,
he might be able to put the memo in some kind of context, as
well as give some practical advice as to what would be the best
thing to do with such an explosive piece of evidence next.
Kilfoyle in turn passed the memo on to John Latham, an active
member of the Democratic party in San Francisco, in the hope
that it might influence the then ongoing Bush-Kerry Presidential
election in favor of the Democrats. Latham as it turned out,
decided that the revelations contained in the memo would probably
do Bush more good than harm, and so decided to keep its content
secret. For reasons unknown, neither Peter Kilfoyle nor Tony
Clarke have been charged with breaking the Official Secrets
Following the announcement of the prosecution the government
remained silent. Only the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith spoke,
to threaten the rest of the British media that should they reveal
the memo’s content further, they could expect to be charged
over the Official Secrets Act.
Despite international offers to publish the memo in full, from
publications ranging from Spectator magazine to the
Blairwatch UK blog, few further details from the memo have appeared.
Meanwhile the court case against the two civil servants has
begun—David Keogh and Leo O’Connor have been charged
under the Official Secrets Act with passing and receiving secret
documents—and both have pleaded not guilty. They are due
back in court in April for the start of the trial. While the
opening session was behind closed doors, it is not yet known
whether the rest of the case will be tried in camera.
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has requested that it should be.
One other clue to the contents of the memo comes from a request
under the Freedom of Information Act, made by British blogger
Steve Wood. Wood asked the Cabinet Office for more details of
the conversation between Bush and Blair about bombing Al Jazeera.
While refusing to reveal details, the Cabinet Office did confirm
that they do hold information relevant to the request. Given
the very specific nature of the question, this is the first
official confirmation that a memo of such a conversation actually
exists, contradicting statements by the Prime Minister's official
spokesman in January 2006 when Al Jazeera made a similar request.
Then Blair’s spokesman replied that to the best of his
knowledge there had been no conversation between Bush and Blair
about bombing Al Jazeera in Qatar.
The four-page memo classified “Top Secret,” was
written by Britain's Ambassador in Washington, Sir David Manning.
Such a classification, in a wartime situation, would not have
been undertaken lightly. It means publishing the memo in full
would do serious damage to Britain's public interest. Presumably
it contains information that had it been fully leaked would
be very damaging to British interests—why the Green Zone
in Iraq is so vulnerable for example, or details of how to differentiate
between friendly and enemy vehicles in Iraq. Possibly there
is more frank information about the US assault on Fallujah.
British Generals were known to be concerned about heavy-handed
US tactics during the siege.
Publishing this kind of information would be a serious blow
to British interests and not something any editor would wish
to do. It may also be legally risky. Under the Official Secrets
Act, if the document is considered to be a threat to national
security, civil servants and security personnel have no public
interest defense, although the media may well do. Information
about who exactly has seen the memo has been confused further—while
some of the participants in this story claim to have actually
seen the original memo, others seem only to have seen a praece.
It is possible that the document was over-classified to protect
politicians' embarrassment, but this is unlikely. Top Secret
documents tend to be Top Secret for a reason. It would certainly
not be Top Secret to protect Bush's embarrassment as that is
not in the British national interest. In fact, Tony Blair comes
out of this rather well, as the moderating force who uses his
influence to reign in the bloodthirsty President. It is unlikely
what Bush said was a joke however—a one liner would not
have made the record, nor is it likely to be an off the cuff
remark. Bush would not have suggested bombing Al Jazeera to
Blair unless he had already cleared this as a viable solution
with his own people.
There is a slim chance the memo will make its way into the public
domain in full soon. In today’s media age it is hard to
keep things suppressed for long, especially since the Internet
undermines traditional concepts about responsibility for publication.
Al Jazeera certainly intends to get to the bottom of this, together
with help from British law firm Finers Stephens Innocent LLP.
If they do, it will cast past aggression against Al Jazeera,
including the death of Tareq Ayyoub, in a different light.
“In light of the Bush-Blair memo which Al Jazeera is pursuing
through the Freedom of Information Act, if the Channel is able
to obtain the memo and confirm that Bush did indeed float the
idea of bombing Al Jazeera, this would have obvious implications
for the case of Tareq Ayoub, which is far from over” an
Al Jazeera spokesman told me.
Downing Street has been stalling. They have not responded to
Al Jazeera's Freedom of Information Act request within the 20
working day period defined under the law. Nevertheless the network
remains optimistic the contents of the memo will be disclosed
sooner or later.
“The lawyers are optimistic the memo will eventually be
revealed, it's rather a question of when. It is not really expected
the memo will come out during the upcoming trial.”
The network does at least seem to have realized they are unlikely
to receive a full apology from Downing Street. Yosri Fouda,
Acting Bureau Manager in London now says he wants only a transcription
of “the ten lines” of the conversation that purportedly
involve the network.
The one thing that has become clear since this murky story emerged
is that dropping a bomb on Al Jazeera would be no less incendiary
than dropping a bomb on Qatar’s mammoth North Field gas
reserves. If Arab hearts and minds are the secret to the “War
on Terror” then America could consider such an act self-sabotage.
Any veneer of respectability remaining to the American administration
in the Middle East would be stripped away and there would be
to hell to pay with 50 million Al Jazeera viewers stretching
from Rabat to Muscat.
This is, of course, just what the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad,
had in mind when he started the channel in the first place.
The Emir unveiled plans for Al Jazeera as soon as he acceded
to power in a bloodless coup in 1995. He had already realised
that to stop his little country falling victim to a blitzkrieg,
like nearby Kuwait, he had to think laterally to defend himself.
Though he knew from his Sandhurst days that military defense
of Qatar was always going to be impossible, he understood too
that if Qatar were to survive with neighbors like Iraq, Iran
and Saudi Arabia, then military self-discipline and planning
would be crucial.
His solution was to invite the Americans to set up their $1.4
billion dollar super high-tech Al Udeid airbase in the desert.
It was a kind of insurance. As the Emir once put it to his advisers,
"The only way we can be sure the Americans will answer
our 911 call is if we have the police at our house."
But who would protect him from the Americans? The answer was
Arab public opinion. Rather than try and control the flow of
information like the other King Canute-like Arab rulers, he
guessed correctly that hosting a popular television network
would make Qatar much harder to sacrifice in the future for
some wider cause, no matter who the aggressors. He could see
that in the modern world public opinion is the most powerful
shield of all. This is one of the reasons why he has proved
to be such an unflinching sponsor of the channel.
Al Jazeera is one of the most important non-state actors in
the Middle East today. If America had blown up its studios,
it would not just have been a strike against an Arab ally. It
would have been an attack on something far more powerful—Arab
Hugh Miles is an award-winning freelance
journalist. In 2000 he was The Times Young Journalist of the
year. Besides his work in print journalism, he has also written
and presented for BBC Radio 4. Miles is the author of one book
Al Jazeera – How Arab TV News Challenged the World,
which was published in January 2005 in the UK, by Time Warner
Books, and since been translated into half a dozen languages.
He also works as a freelance consultant and in recent months
has worked for the BBC, Sandhurst Military Academy, the US Government
in Washington and the UN. Miles is currently working on another
book about Cairo.