Fighting Words

The Bush Bombshell

Did the president propose to take out Al Jazeera?

Bad idea up the flagpole?

Tomorrow morning, in a court in London, two men will appear to face charges under Britain’s Official Secrets Act. The first man, David Keogh, a former employee of the Cabinet Office, is accused of unlawfully handing a confidential memorandum to the second man, Leo O’Connor, a researcher for a former Labor member of Parliament, Tony Clarke.

The memorandum is actually a five-page transcript stamped “Top Secret.” It describes a meeting at the White House on April 16, 2004, between President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair. At that meeting, which took place while desperately hard fighting was in progress in the Iraqi town of Fallujah, Bush mooted the idea of taking out the headquarters of Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar. The network’s correspondents inside the city had been transmitting lurid footage of extreme violence. The exchange apparently puts Blair in a good light, in that he dissuaded the president from any such course of action and was assisted in this by Colin Powell, who was then secretary of state.

So, this is ostensibly about something that never actually happened. But what if it had? The state of Qatar, which though a Wahabbi kingdom has a free press and allows women to run and to vote in elections, has not been the host of just Al Jazeera since the network’s predecessor was kicked out of Saudi Arabia. It has also been the host of United States Central Command, and of many American civilians. It is the site each year of a highly interesting and useful conference, co-sponsored by the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, where American and Middle Eastern academics and journalists and others meet in conditions of informality. Its emir has been a positive help and supporter to many democrats in the region. Bombing or blowing up the Al Jazeera office would involve hitting the downtown section of Doha, the capital city of a friendly power. It’s difficult to think of any policy that would have been more calamitous. (But perhaps it was proposed to do it “surgically”?)

What reason do we have to believe that this appalling proposal was actually made? First, the British government has prosecuted the two men accused of handling the memo for leaking ”making a damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations.” Blair’s attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, has further threatened an injunction on the Daily Mirror, which published the original story in November under the bylines of Kevin Maguire and Andy Lines, if it tries to disclose any more details of the document.

But this attempt at damage control has been thwarted by one sitting and one former Labor MP, both of whom have stated for the record that they know the contents of the memorandum. The sitting one is Peter Kilfoyle, a strong opponent of the Iraq war who was until 2000 a deputy minister of defense. The recently unseated one is the abovementioned Tony Clarke, to one of whose staffers the memo was given in the first place. (Clarke did what he thought was the right thing by giving the memo back to Prime Minister Blair’s office in Downing Street.) Kilfoyle decided on Monday to go public and in effect to challenge the British government to prosecute him, too.

A second reason for believing in the authenticity of the memo is that an unnamed spokesman for Blair was quoted in the original story as saying that Bush’s remark was “humorous, not serious.” This is as much as to concede that some such conversation did in fact take place. It is of course not always possible to tell when the president is joking, but another who saw the transcript claimed that he was “deadly serious, as was Blair.” (This by the way is a rebuke to those who routinely taunt the prime minister as “Bush’s poodle.”)

A third and again somewhat inductive reason is the response of Colin Powell, who was finally asked about the meeting to his face outside St. John’s Episcopal Church in Maclean, Va., on Sunday morning. The Daily Mirror’s reporter, Ryan Parry, asked him a question that contained the date and subject of the meeting, and was successively told “I can’t remember every meeting,” … “I don’t know, you’ll have to forgive me,” … “I don’t recall this,” … “I don’t remember the Al Jazeera thing, frankly,” along with several more brushoffs of the same “nondenial denial” sort. I am not the world’s greatest fan of Powell or of his secretaryship, but the chief steward of American foreign policy might be expected to remember a proposal to bomb the territory of a friendly neutral that is the site of U.S. Central Command, as well as a sharp dispute about it between his president and his country’s chief political and military ally. If he doesn’t feel confident enough to say: “That is too absurdly untrue to deserve even a comment from me,” then he is not doing much better than stalling.

It is high time that this question was ventilated by people other than British editors and journalists who labor under the repressive conditions of the Official Secrets Act. Al Jazeera is not describable, perhaps, as a strictly objective station, but it is the main source of news in the Arab world because it is not the property of any state or party, and it has given live and unedited coverage of things like the elections in Iraq. In 2001, its office in Afghanistan was destroyed by “smart” bombs. In 2003, its correspondent in Baghdad was killed in an American missile strike. If it becomes widely believed that it has been or is being targeted, the consequences in the region will be rather more than Karen Hughes’ “public diplomacy” can handle.