The Al Jazeera Memo: To Publish or Not to Publish?
By Hugh Miles

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 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 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.