Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Brits Use Official Secrets Act to Charge Leakers of Secret Memo

Did Tony Blair talk Pres. Bush out of bombing Al-Jazeera's Saudi headquarters in April, 2004?

That's what The Daily Mirror reported in its Tuesday edition. The report is based on a highly classified Downing Street memo that was leaked to the Mirror by a former official in the Foreign Office.

The White House denied there was any truth to the newspaper report:

"We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press in an e-mail.

It's not as if the U.S. has never bombed Al Jazeera, though.

In 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, a U.S. missile hit the network's office in Baghdad, killing a correspondent. U.S. officials called the incident an accident. In 2001, American bombs exploded in its bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan. Washington said the targeting officers did not know that the site was an office of the television service, believing instead that it was used by al Qaeda.

A former senior U.S. intelligence official said that it was clear the White House saw al-Jazeera as a problem, but that although the CIA's clandestine service came up with plans to counteract it, such as planting people on its staff, it never received permission to proceed. "Bombing in Qatar was never contemplated," the former official said.

It's worth noting again the date of this alleged meeting between Bush and Blair -- April, 2004. Just a few months before, Al Jazeera's graphic coverage of civilian casualties in Fallujah following the massive U.S. offensive in November had enraged both Bush and Rumsfeld.

When U.S. troops went back into Falluja in November 2004, Rumsfeld called the network's account of civilian casualties during the American push to retake the city "outrageous nonsense" and "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable."

Bush and Blair were known to have disagreed strongly on the way the Fallujah invasion was handled; according to The Guardian, these tensions came out at the April, 2004, meeting.

The conversation was understood to have taken place during a meeting in the US. It is believed to reveal that Mr Blair disagreed with Mr Bush about aspects of the Iraq war. There was widespread comment at the time that the British government was angry about US military tactics there, particularly in the city of Falluja.

The blogging world is all over this story. Steve Soto points out, in fairness, that the Daily Mirror "doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation in the world" -- but, then again, "...if in fact Bush was kidding, then why is the Blair government going after the civil servant who leaked the existence of a Downing Street memo on the subject?"

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