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November 23, 2005

A Close Call for al-Jazeera?

by Jim Lobe

The White House emphatically denied a report by a British tabloid Tuesday that U.S. President George W. Bush considered bombing the headquarters of the al-Jazeera satellite television station in Qatar during the U.S. Marine assault on Fallujah in April 2004.

But al-Jazeera, joined by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), called on the British government to publicly release the purported "top-secret" document on which the Daily Mirror report was based in order to determine its veracity and context.

According to the Mirror, Bush made his plans known during a White House meeting on April 16, 2004, with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who dissuaded the president from ordering an attack.

"We have a newspaper that is reporting very serious charges and saying that there are minutes to this meeting in which this was said," said Joel Campagna, CPJ's Middle East expert, who has long followed the tumultuous relationship between the Bush administration and the Arab world's most popular broadcaster. "The quickest way to find out is to release these documents."

The Mirror itself quoted two unnamed sources about the White House meeting, both of whom appear to have agreed that the possibility of bombing al-Jazeera's headquarters was indeed discussed. One was quoted as saying that the threat was "humorous, not serious," but the other insisted that "Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair."

While Blair's office reportedly declined all comment, the White House itself dismissed the report. "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response," its chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, declared.

That Bush would have contemplated such an attack would indeed appear highly unlikely, if for no other reason than Qatar is a close U.S. ally that houses extensive U.S. military facilities, including a command center that has been used for U.S. operations in Iraq.

In addition, given al-Jazeera's popularity and stature in the Arab world – it had an estimated viewing audience of more than 35 million people at the time – its bombing would likely have caused a huge backlash among the very people whose "hearts and minds" Washington believes it must win in order to prevail in its "war on terror."

On the other hand, the fact that a British official, David Keogh, has been formally charged under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) with making a "damaging disclosure" of classified information reportedly in connection with the report, tends to confirm that a document regarding a discussion between Blair and Bush about al-Jazeera – whether conducted in jest or in earnest – does indeed exist.

Keogh is alleged to have given the original memorandum to Leo O'Connor, who has also been charged under the OSA. O'Connor in turn allegedly passed it along to his employer at the time, Labour MP Tony Clarke, who, according to the Mirror, returned it to Blair's office and has since declined all comment. The Mirror report appears based primarily on accounts by sources who have seen the document in question or who witnessed the meeting.

Other factors suggest that Bush and his top aides may have become so incensed at what they saw as the devastating impact on Arab public opinion of al-Jazeera's coverage of the Fallujah siege that an attack may indeed have been considered.

The station reported live continuously from Fallujah during the nearly month-long Marine assault in which hundreds of people – including civilians, as well as insurgents – are believed to have been killed. As a result, it was the target of vehement verbal attacks by senior U.S. officials, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who accused its correspondents of aiding the rebels.

The attack was halted less than two weeks after the Blair-Bush White House meeting due to growing protests by Iraqi officials and Arab governments concerned about the popular reaction to the scenes of destruction broadcast by al-Jazeera, as well as other Arab media.

A visit to Washington by Qatar's foreign minister, Hamad bin Jasim Thani, at the end of April was dominated by U.S. complaints about the network. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell described his conversations with Thani about al-Jazeera as "very intense."

The following August, the interim Iraqi government temporarily closed al-Jazeera's operations in the country, as well as those of its chief competitor, Saudi Arabia's al-Arabiya. Despite protests from press freedom and democracy groups, the Bush administration did not object.

In a New York Times article about pressures on Qatar to sell the station published five months later, the reporter cited fiery debates about "what to do about" al-Jazeera among administration officials that "sometimes erupted into shouting matches."

"One side is shouting, 'We have to shut them down!' and the other side is saying 'We have to work with them to make them better,'" one unnamed official told the Times. "It's an emotional issue. People can't think of it rationally."

Nor did the debate over the network begin with the Fallujah assault. Al-Jazeera became a focus of the administration's anger shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon, when it became clear that it was the station of choice for broadcasting video- and audio-taped messages from Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to the rest of the world.

During the subsequent U.S. air campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Jazeera's bureau in Kabul was destroyed when a U.S. missile hit the building in which it was located. The Pentagon later said it had no idea that the network's offices were in the building, which it said was used by al-Qaeda.

During the U.S. capture of Baghdad in April 2003, al-Jazeera's bureau was destroyed and one of its newsmen killed by U.S. fire. The Pentagon insisted that U.S. troops had called in support after seeing enemy fire from outside the building.

CPJ, among other watchdog groups, has complained, however, that the military has yet to provide adequate explanations of how these attacks took place. "The lack of transparent investigations of what took place in both these incidents has fueled suspicions by al-Jazeera and others that there were more nefarious intentions," Campagna said. "The antidote to these concerns is to shed light on what took place, and that hasn't happened so far."

For its part, al-Jazeera said Tuesday that that if the Mirror report proved accurate, "it would cast serious doubts in regard to the U.S. administration's version of previous incidents involving al-Jazeera's journalists and offices."

Former British Defense Minister Peter Kilfoyle, a critic of the Iraq war who also called Tuesday for releasing the memorandum, noted that the implications of the report, if true, were particularly worrisome for what they said about the thinking in the White House.

"If it was the case that President Bush wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in what is after all a friendly country," he told the BBC, "it speaks volumes and raises questions about subsequent attacks that took place on the press that wasn't embedded with coalition forces."

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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