Further details about Bush-Blair memo stopped

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

The U.K. attorney general Lord Goldsmith has warned British media that further reporting of details from an allegedly leaked memo about a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush "could be in breach of section 5 of the Official Secrets Act." The Guardian quoted an unnamed Downing Street source as saying that the decision whether to prosecute was "entirely up to the attorney general", who intended to "draw a line in the sand" to stop further leaks.

Jeremy Dear, secretary of National Union of Journalists, called it "a heavy-handed attempt to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is a double attack on the freedom of the press and freedom of information." Mr. Dear continued, "These sort of attempts to stifle uncomfortable revelations printed in a newspaper, which is only carrying out its proper duty to inform the British public, does the government of what is supposed to be a democracy no credit whatsoever."

According to The Guardian this "is believed to be the first time the Blair government has threatened newspapers in this way". The British government has before obtained court injunctions against newspapers, but never prosecuted editors for publishing contents of leaked documents.

Former British defence minister Peter Kilfoyle earlier 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."

Tuesday, the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, ran a front page story under the headline "Bush plot to bomb his ally", citing the memo in question (see previous story). In response to the attorney general, the Daily Mirror said it had "essentially agreed to comply". Boris Johnson, MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator magazine, has condemned the Attorney General's actions and offered to risk jail by printing the memo if he receives it within the next few days.

The Washington Post cited an unnamed senior Washington diplomat saying that the Bush remark as reported by the Daily Mirror "sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke." But, the diplomat said, "it was foolish for someone to write it down, and now it will be a story for days."

The meeting between Bush and Blair occurred on April 16, 2004, at the height of the US assault on Fallujah. According to some reports, al-Jazeera was the only major news organisation providing eyewitness reports and video footage from within the city at the time.

There is a history of enmity between senior U.S. officials and al-Jazeera. Vice President Dick Cheney has said that the network ran the risk of being labeled "Osama [bin Laden]'s outlet to the world", and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has called its coverage "outrageous" and "inexcusably biased".

Al-Jazeera's news bureau in Kabul was destroyed by a U.S. missile during the aerial assault on the Taliban. The Pentagon later stated it did not know that the network's offices were in the building. Al-Jazeera's Baghdad bureau was also hit by US forces, resulting in the death of an al-Jazeera journalist during the April 2003 assault on Baghdad. The Pentagon claimed U.S. troops were responding to enemy fire from the building.

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