Bush, Blair should set record straight on leaked Al-Jazeera threat

New York, November 23, 2005—
U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair should clarify reports by a British newspaper that Bush had raised the idea of bombing the headquarters and other offices of the Qatar-based satellite television network Al-Jazeera during an April 2004 meeting with Blair in Washington.

The London-based tabloid the Daily Mirror reported that Bush raised the idea of bombing Al-Jazeera’s offices but that Blair advised against it, saying such action would provoke a global backlash. The paper’s sources disagreed on the nature of Bush’s alleged suggestion. One government source dismissed the remark as “humorous, not serious,” and an unidentified source claimed the president was “deadly serious.” The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. diplomat as saying the report “sounds like one of the president’s one-liners that is meant as a joke.”

According to international and British press reports two British civil servants face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act for leaking a classified memo of the meeting between the two leaders. The memo turned up in May last year in the office of a British member of parliament, the Daily Mirror said.

Blair’s office declined comment. Yesterday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press in an email statement that the White House was “not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response.”

“This is a very serious charge with grave implications for the safety of media professionals. President Bush and Prime Minister Blair should at once set the record straight about what was said or not said during their April 2004 meeting,” said Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Refusing to address these reports in a substantive way only fuels suspicions.”

The Bush administration has been a harsh and frequent critic of Al-Jazeera for its coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan but has dismissed allegations that it had ever targeted the network. Officials have labeled Al-Jazeera’s programming inflammatory and anti-American. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last year accused the network of “consistently lying” and “working in concert with the terrorists.”

In April 2003, a U.S. missile struck Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. The military claimed it was responding to hostile fire at the time, an assertion vehemently denied by Al-Jazeera. CPJ has repeatedly demanded that the U.S. military conduct and make public a thorough investigation into the incident, but is unaware of any military inquiry that was ever launched. The U.S. military bombed Al-Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan, in November 2001. The Pentagon asserted, without providing additional detail, that the office was a “known Al-Qaeda facility,” and that the U.S. military did not know the space was being used by Al-Jazeera.