Alleged Bush-Blair Al-Jazeera bombing transcript leaked

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An unverified document discovered by the UK tabloid The Daily Mirror claiming to have been leaked from Downing Street has been reported to contain a statement from US President George W. Bush about wishing to bomb the headquarters of Arabic TV station Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar. According to The Daily Mirror, the President was dissuaded from bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters in Qatar by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. The newspaper said its story was based on information from an unnamed source with access to the "top secret" memo of the President and Prime Minister's conversation.

The Daily Mirror reports that one of its sources said Bush "made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar. 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 Mirror is a United Kingdom-based tabloid, which has been under scrutiny in the past for publishing faked photographs depicting British soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees.

The document is said to be a transcript of a conversation between Bush and Tony Blair at the White House on the 16th of April 2004, when the second US offensive force enacted on the Iraqi city of Fallujah.

Bush administration officials have criticized the Qatar-based network for their coverage of the War in Iraq and of other Middle East affairs. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had earlier accused the station of "inciting violence against [US] troops". Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the network "a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda and a vehicle of anti-American propaganda". In a news conference a day before the document's supposed date, Rumsfeld was quoted as saying the following about the network's coverage of the War in Iraq: "I can definitively say that what Al-Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable."

While a UK Government official was quoted in the report as saying Mr. Bush's remarks were intended as "humorous, not serious", another source with apparent access to the memo told the newspaper that "Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men." The Washington Post quoted a senior diplomat saying that Bush's remark as recounted by The Daily Mirror "sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke", adding that "it was foolish for someone to write it down, and now it will be a story for days."

The authenticity of the documents and its alleged contents have not been verified independently. The source of the leak, David Keogh, 49, a UK civil servant, is charged under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act, of passing the memo to MP Tony Clarke's former assistant Leo O'Connor. Section 3 concerns "a person who is or has been a Crown servant or government contractor" and who made a "damaging disclosure" of "any information, document or other article" that relates to "international relations" or was "obtained from a State other than the United Kingdom or an international organisation". A document is deemed "damaging" if "(a) it endangers the interests of the United Kingdom abroad, seriously obstructs the promotion or protection by the United Kingdom of those interests or endangers the safety of British citizens abroad; or (b) it is of information or of a document or article which is such that its unauthorised disclosure would be likely to have any of those effects."

Both Keogh and O'Connor are scheduled to appear in court later next week. Clarke has returned the memo to Downing Street and said O'Connor had behaved "perfectly correctly".

The British attorney general Lord Goldsmith threatened newspapers with proscecution under the Official Secrets Act if they revealed any further details of the document. The British government has before obtained court injunctions against newspapers, but never prosecuted editors for publishing contents of leaked documents. According to The Guardian this "is believed to be the first time the Blair government has threatened newspapers in this way". Knowing the legal ramifications, Tory MP, and editor for the conservative magazine The Spectator, Boris Johnson has offered to publish the full text of the leaked document and risk a jail sentence, if someone can provide him with a copy in the next couple of days. Arguing for the publication he said: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we suppress the truth, we forget what we are fighting for."

Former British defense minister Peter Kilfoyle called for the full text of the memo 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". He added "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." Al-Jazeera's Kabul office was hit indirectly by two US bombs in 2001 and Al-Jazeera's reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed when two US missiles hit the Al-Jazeera office in Baghdad in 2003. The US has denied targeting the al-Jazeera offices deliberately.

Al Jazeera has reacted cautiously to the report, releasing a statement in which it said it was investigating it and urged the US and UK governments to make the documents in question publicly available.

A spokesperson for the White House dismissed the allegations, saying, "We are not going to dignify something so outlandish with a response." Downing Street declined to make a statement, telling BBC News that official procedure prevents it from commenting on "leaked documents".

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