Bush And Bomb Threats
“News Dissector” Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org. His latest books are The Death of Media (Melville Manifestos) and When News Lies on media complicity and the Iraq war (Select Books). See www.newsdissector.org/store.htm.
The recent news that President George W. Bush might have threatened to bomb Al Jazeera is hard to believe. We don’t want to believe it. And given the source of the allegation—a British tabloid newspaper, The Daily Mirror —it deserves scrutiny. But it also deserves investigation, which so far the American press has been slow in pursuing.
Here's the background: Last week The Daily Mirror reported leaks of another memo from 10 Downing Street (a website in England called Blair Watch reports there may actually be two memos). The memo allegedly reported that, in a 2004 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush discussed bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Qatar. According to the allegation, Blair talked him out of it. The meeting between Bush and Blair occurred as U.S. troops were engaged in brutal combat in Fallujah—an offensive aired with all its gore by Al Jazeera but mostly sanitized in the United States. Bush was reportedly outraged that Al Jazeera was reporting the high number of Iraqi civilians killed in the assault.
The White House dismissed the bomb threat report as “outlandish.” For his part, Tony Blair tried to ignore it, and later derided it as a “conspiracy’ theory.
The specter of Bush threatening the Middle East’s most popular information source becomes less far-fetched when you consider the lengths this White House has pursued to censor damning information and the record of U.S. military attacks on the media. Many Americans don’t recall how, under George W. Bush, the U.S. military knocked out Saddam’s TV complex and attacked Al Jazeera offices in Kabul in 2001 and Baghdad in 2003. These incidents have for many U.S. viewers become “fog facts," in writer Larry Beinhart’s phrase—information we once knew, but has since disappeared from view.
How credible is the allegation that Bush threatened to bomb a major media facility? Until the document is published, we won’t know the full context, but members of the Bush administration have branded Al Jazeera as terrorist TV. The White House has long disliked the media outlet for its unvarnished reporting of U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Anarticle by Jim Lobe this week on InterPress News Service notes that The New York Times has previously reported the Bush administration's antipathy toward Al Jazeera. The Times reported that Bush administration got into “fiery debates about ‘what to do about" Al Jazeera that "sometimes erupted into shouting matches." The pro-U.S. administration in Baghdad, along with other pro-western Arab states, have banned Al Jazeera’s reporters. One of their reporters was killed by the U.S. military, and others were jailed in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Journalists there told me they often felt under siege.
On Tuesday night, the reporter who broke the story in the Mirror , Kevin Maguire, discussed the memo on a panel held at the Frontline Club in London, a media hangout. Maguire offered the following account of how he learned of Bush’s threat (the following is based on notes an Al Jazeera blogger took at the event):
“A source (which Maguire will not name) approached the Mirror with details of a top-secret memo, which had "accidentally" found its way into the papers of a certain MP. Noting that the memo contained, amongst other things, details of U.K. and U.S. troop movements in Iraq, said MP turned it back to Downing Street.
“The Mirror, out of courtesy, informs Downing Street that they will be publishing details of this memo. Downing Street has a hissy fit, and the White House, according to Maguire "went berserk," leading to threats of the Official Secrets Act against anybody who is even considering publishing the document.
“Of course," said Maguire, "the government wouldn't be using the Official Secrets Act if the reports weren't true. This government will go to great lengths to keep this memo secret."
This news of Bush’s alleged threat also upset Al Jazeera, which learned from the press how close their news institution and small facility, which I visited earlier this year, might have come to conflagration. A bomb dropped on the 24-hour news outlet could have caused many deaths and casualties.
Blair refuses to meet with Al Jazeera’s director Wadah Khanfar, who is in London. The station now says it is considering legal action against President Bush—a ploy which will probably go nowhere in Washington, where international law is considered an endangered species. The Committee to Protect Journalists is lending its support to Al Jazeera’s appeal to the British government to release the documents.
"We have a newspaper that is reporting very serious charges and saying that there are minutes to this meeting in which this was said," says Joel Campagna of CPJ. "The quickest way to find out is to release these documents."
Khanfar says the release of the memo is in the public interest: “Al Jazeera is not just a TV station. It has become something people are very attached to. People are angry.”
Al Jazeera staffers have created “Don’t Bomb Us” blog , where they’re posting a growing list of outlets which pledge they will publish the secret memo if they get their hands on it.
Last week, Britain’s chief legal officer Lord Goldsmith issued a stern warning to national newspapers not to reveal the contents of the secret memo, lest they be charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. On Monday, he appeared to be backing away from the warning, saying: “I wasn't seeking to gag newspapers; what I said to newspapers was you need to take legal advice.”
And yesterday, a British official and another man appeared in court after being charged under the Official Secrets Act with leaking the document, which was reportedly sent to the office of a member of Parliament. The official, David Keogh, a former cabinet office communications officer, was arrested along with Leo O’ Connor, a former parliamentary researcher, in April 2004, but only charged on Nov. 17 this year. The circumstances surrounding these charges raise many questions. As BBC Newsnight asked: “... how can the case proceed when defense lawyers haven't seen the memo? And why did it take the government so long to decide to prosecute?”
The press in the U.K. and the rest of the world is covering the story about Bush’s alleged threat, but, like many stories embarrassing to the Bush administration, the threat has only played briefly, if at all, in most U.S. outlets, despite the fact that President Bush is the main protagonist.
The media treatment of the shocking allegation is one more chapter in the great gap that persists between the “all about us” coverage of Iraq by the U.S. media and the reporting in the rest of the world. Much of the U.S. media downplayed the story of the bombing threat after first ridiculing it as a “joke”—intimating that if the comment had been made at all, it wasn’t intended to be taken seriously. But how will the world know whether or not Bush was joking if the media won't even investigate the memo? It remains to be seen if U.S. media outlets will return to this and many other unanswered questions about the allegation. Surely, such a hot-button issue that has inflamed antagonisms in the world—and the world of media—deserves more investigation and outrage.