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 material damages.
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
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
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
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 Act.
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 public opinion.
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.