Endless surprises for Al-Jazeera

Mhamed Krichen/CPJ Board member

There seems to be no end to American surprises when it comes to Al-Jazeera. The latest was revealed by Der Spiegel, the German weekly news magazine, which reported the U.S. National Security Agency hacked into our internal communications system, according to documents provided by Edward Snowden, the former NSA security analyst.

The magazine said the document “did not reveal to what extent the intelligence agency spied on journalists or managers of the media company, or whether the surveillance is ongoing.”

According to the same documents, the NSA considered accessing and reading the communications of interesting targets who were specially protected by the news organization “a notable success.” The agency described these targeted figures as having “high potential as sources of intelligence.” This might make you think Al-Jazeera was running a nuclear facility, or a laboratory for the development of weapons of mass destruction, or even a suspicious military base, rather than a television news network!

Al-Jazeera’s sometimes cool relationship with Washington began with its coverage of events following the attacks of September 11, including our reporting on the so-called “War on Terrorism,” the Afghanistan War in 2001; the Iraq War in 2003, and, most of all, broadcasting controversial video tapes of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Official U.S. resentment, especially that voiced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, of Al-Jazeera’s coverage was not the only response we received for our news coverage. The United States targeted Al-Jazeera’s bureaus in Kabul and in Baghdad, where Tareq Ayyoub, our correspondent, was killed. Other Al-Jazeera staffers have suffered, including Sami Al Haj, Al-Jazeera’s cameraman in Kabul, who was detained for almost seven years in Guantanamo Bay without charge before being released May 1, 2008.

The biggest surprise of all was in late 2005, when the front page headline of Britain’s Daily Mirror declared “Bush Plot to Bomb his Arab Ally.” The story was about a leaked memo that claimed that President George W. Bush presented British Prime Minister Tony Blair, during a meeting in Washington in April 2004, with plans to attack Al-Jazeera’s headquarter in Doha and some of its bureaus around the world. Blair was said to have warned Bush such an attack would provoke a wave of international outrage.

Blair visited Al-Jazeera’s headquarters after his term in office came to an end. During his visit he met with a number of high ranking editorial managers and the bombing story came up in discussion. “Thank you Mr. Blair for stopping this bombing,” I said to him with a smile. He smiled back and, as usual, responded with words that would neither confirm nor deny the incident.

In view of all these unpleasant precedents between Washington and Al-Jazeera, we opted to wait before responding to the news in Der Spiegel. If confirmed, it may mean Washington has been persuaded that spying on Al-Jazeera is more beneficial and certainly quieter than bombing its bureaus and headquarters.

It is ironic that Qatar is classified as one of America’s key allies and that Al-Jazeera itself is often accused of originally being an American project created to tailor Arab public opinion to Washington’s measurements. Yet, we now know America spies on its own allies and, if you believe it, on the television news channel it supposedly created!

What is still mystifying about the Spiegel report is that the document stated NSA officials decided to spy on our internal communications because they were not satisfied with the language analysis of the material broadcast. What this means is not clear. Al-Jazeera’s main job is to air news and take pride in its scoops. So, how could the internal communication of a news channel be more important than the news and the programs it airs?

One wonders whether NSA was concerned about the views of some of Al-Jazeera’s employees appearing on Facebook, Twitter, in newspaper articles or elsewhere. It might be understandable to spy on our internal communications for commercial reasons, but that kind of information is insignificant when it comes to news reporting and influencing public opinion.

And as a final note, since it’s unknown whether the surveillance is ongoing, it could well be this article reached the NSA before it got to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York.

Mhamed Krichen is a Doha-based anchor and program host for Al-Jazeera.