Britain Rolls Out 'Official Secrets Act' to Prevent Disclosure of Memo or Further Details
UK Source: 'The memo is explosive and hugely damaging to Bush'
By Winter Patriot on 11/23/2005, 10:57pm PT  

Guest blogged by Winter Patriot

We're probably not supposed to talk about this. So here goes.

As Chris Floyd explains:

This week, the UK's Daily Mirror ran a story about a leaked UK government document that apparently detailed an astounding episode from 2004: George W. Bush planning to bomb the Al-Jazeera headquaters in Qatar a U.S. ally and Tony Blair managing to talk him out of it. Downing Street refused to comment on the memo, and British officialdom tried to laugh it off, literally an anonymous Blair spokesman said Bush had just been joking.

But there is obviously some fire beneath all that smoke. Several MPs took it seriously indeed, including Blair's former defence minister, Peter Kilfoyle, who called for the document to be made public. Then late yesterday [Tuesday], the Blair government unleashed Britain's draconian Official Secrets Act which is far in excess of anything in the US threatening to prosecute any paper that published the actual contents of the memo. (The Mirror story was a paraphrase.)

This is highly unusual, given the fact that the Blair camp did not invoke the Secrets Act to stop the extremely embarrassing "Downing Street Memos" which revealed the cynical pre-invasion machinations by Bush and Blair to "fix the intelligence around the policy" of aggressive war. In fact, as the Guardian points out today, "the [Blair] government has never prosecuted editors for publishing the contents of leaked documents." The invocation of the Secrets Act in this case essentially confirms the substance of the Mirror's allegations; if it was all fluff, just a "joke," why try to quash it in such a heavy-handed fashion?

It seems likely then that the story is true: Bush seriously contemplated launching an attack on Al-Jazeera's headquarters in the business district of Doha, Qatar's capital and had to be dissuaded from this madness by Blair.

As you can probably see, Chris explains things much better than I can. To tell you the truth, the whole affair leaves me practically speechless. But you can follow the story as it has developed so far, using the links and quotes below:

from Tuesday, November 22's edition of The Daily Mirror: EXCLUSIVE: BUSH PLOT TO BOMB HIS ARAB ALLY by Kevin Maguire And Andy Lines

PRESIDENT Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a "Top Secret" No 10 memo reveals.

But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash.

A source said: "There's no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it." Al-Jazeera is accused by the US of fuelling the Iraqi insurgency.

The attack would have led to a massacre of innocents on the territory of a key ally, enraged the Middle East and almost certainly have sparked bloody retaliation.

A source said last night: "The memo is explosive and hugely damaging to Bush.

"He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere. Blair replied that would cause a big problem.
...
A Government official suggested that the Bush threat had been "humorous, not serious".

But another source declared: "Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men."

There's a lot more to it; I can't quote it all here but I think you should read the whole article.

Other news services picked up the story, along with the initial non-reactions from On High. The Guardian: 'Blair talked Bush out of bombing'

A spokesman for 10 Downing Street refused to discuss the leaked memo.

But former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle - a leading Labour opponent of the Iraq War - called for the document to be made public.

"I believe that Downing Street ought to publish this memo in the interests of transparency, given that much of the detail appears to be in the public domain," he told the Press Association.

"I think they ought to clarify what exactly happened on this occasion. If it was the case that President Bush wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in what is after all a friendly country, it speaks volumes and it raises questions about subsequent attacks that took place on the press that wasn't embedded with coalition forces."

There was even a reasonably neutral report from Yahoo! (AFP) Blair talked Bush out of bombing al-Jazeera: report

The following day [Wednesday] we find the usual White House spin from CNN: U.S.: Al-Jazeera bomb story 'outlandish'

The White House characterized as "outlandish" Tuesday a British newspaper report that President Bush once discussed bombing the headquarters of Arabic-language television network Al-Jazeera with Prime Minister Tony Blair.

I was thinking: Why does the White House call it "outlandish"? Are they getting tired of calling every single accusation "absurd"? But then I read more:

"We are not going to dignify something so outlandish with a response," a White House official told CNN. A Pentagon official called the Daily Mirror report "absolutely absurd."

Of course, as we are in the process of seeing, it's the idea that was outlandish, not the report. Because if the report were really outlandish, there would be no reason to ban reporting of it, would there? We weren't supposed to mention that, were we?

So ... once again official actions betray official lies. We weren't supposed to mention that, either, were we? Oh well. So it goes.

Here's more from The Guardian: Legal gag on Bush-Blair war row by Richard Norton-Taylor

The attorney general last night threatened newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of a document allegedly relating to a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq.

It is believed to be the first time the Blair government has threatened newspapers in this way. Though it has obtained court injunctions against newspapers, the government has never prosecuted editors for publishing the contents of leaked documents, including highly sensitive ones about the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, last night referred editors to newspaper reports yesterday that described the contents of a memo purporting to be at the centre of charges against two men under the secrets act.

What's all that about? Read it all here.
And meanwhile, what's Aljazeera all about anyway? I can't figure it out --- but we can always rely on Informed Comment for some good analysis: Bush as Press Assassin? Baathist in a Mirror by Juan Cole

Aljazeera is a widely misunderstood Arabic television channel that is mainly characterized by a quaint 1950s-style pan-Arab nationalism. It is not a fundamentalist religious channel, though it does host one old-time Muslim Brother, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Its main peculiarity in local terms is that it will air all sides of a political issue and allow frank criticism of Middle Eastern politicians as well as of Western ones. It is the only place in the Arab media where one routinely hears Israeli spokesmen (speaking very good Arabic, typically) addressing their concerns and point of view to Arab audiences.

Most of Aljazeera's programming is presented by natty men in business suits or good-looking, chic Arab women in fashionable Western clothes. (I see the anchors every day and am stricken at the idea of them being blown to smithereens by an American "accidental" bombing!) A lot of the programming is Discovery Channel-style documentaries.

The news is often criticial of the United States, though the journalists like controversy and are perfectly capable of asking fundamentalists and nationalists from the region very hard questions. The channel is one of the few places where you can sometimes see frank debate among Sunni Arab, Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis (the Lord knows we don't see it on US news!) Some Aljazeera journalists may have been sympathetic to radical Muslim groups, but mainly on nationalist and anti-imperialist grounds. These people don't look like adherents of political Islam for the most part.

Ironically, after one of the early-morning Aljazeera news broadcasts EST on Wednesday that discussed the Bush plot against the channel, the next show was about recently released American movies, including "Jarhead" (about a Marine during the Gulf War), which showcased the films enthusiastically and may as well have been an infomercial. It was jarring, the effusiveness about American soft power after the admission of the dark side of US military power.

Plotting to assassinate civilian journalists in a friendly country is certainly against the law, and if Bush is ever impeached, this charge will certainly figure in the trial...

It's always a good idea to read Juan Cole in full. But I gotta keep movin'...

On this side of the bog, there's been some serious reporting from The Raw Story: UK press gags news outlets over minutes of meeting discussing al Jazeera bombing in which Larisa Alexandrovna raises several good points, including:

A source familiar with the case told RAW STORY that while individual publications have been targeted by the Blair administration in the past, this case is particularly extraordinary because journalists by and large are allowed the public interest defense. Central to this case and series of events is the question of why The Mirror and other news organizations would accept this gag order.

"One key thing to remember is you don't have to have signed anything saying you would stick by the rules and not disclose or receive stuff," the source said. "If you knowingly received it you could be charged. But charging journalists would fall foul of the public interest defense, so although journalists are as liable to arrest as anyone else, the case would almost certainly fail if it could be shown to be in the public interest that the information be made public."

Lucy Daiglish, the Executive Director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press points to the First Amendment, under which this type of gag order would not be permissible in the US.

"[The gag against the Mirror] shows what a difference the First Amendment can make," Daiglish added.

"You could not issue a prior restraint like that in the US unless there was an urgent, imminent, actual threat to US national security. First Amendment would absolutely apply here in this type of case," she added.

Right. But as we've been seeing in other contexts, in the US there are different ways of keeping things quiet.

Larisa mentions, as do many others, that previous actions now take on a different hue in the light of this relevation.

Bombings now Suspect

According to the Guardian, in reaction to the article in the Mirror, the International Federation of Journalists is demanding complete disclosure with regard to the death of 16 journalists and media staff, including al-Jazeera cameraman Tarek Ayoub, who was killed when the station's Baghdad office was hit during a US air strike in April of 2003.

All media outlets had to provide the US military with their locations in Baghdad and neighboring cities. Al-Jazeera provided the location of its Baghdad office to Washington prior to the bombing on its Baghdad office.

It doesn't take much of a wit to note that doing so may have been a mistake. Maybe Aljazeera in particular and journalists in general are going to have to keep their locations secret. Ahem.

In Britain, where it's not a holiday weekend and nobody really cares about turkey or the choreographed madness we call "football", the question of the day seems like it's going to be: What else are they trying to hide? From The Guardian comes an article that strikes me as sheer spin, though I admit I have no proof to back up my intuition about it: Secrecy gag prompted by fear of new Blair-Bush revelations by Richard Norton-Taylor and Michael White

Fears that fresh revelations about disputes between Tony Blair and George Bush on the Iraq conflict could damage Downing Street's intimate relationship with the White House prompted this week's unprecedented threat by the attorney general to use the Official Secrets Act against national newspapers.

Senior MPs, Whitehall officials and lawyers were agreed yesterday that Lord Goldsmith had "read the riot act" to the media because of political embarrassment caused by a sensitive leak of face-to-face exchanges between the prime minister and the US president in the White House in April 2004.

As usual, I think you should read the whole article but of course I can't force you to do so, can I? Oh well.

I'll tell you this much, though: Tony Blair must be livid. Finally there's evidence he could use to refute the argument that he's nothing but George's poodle. But it's so explosive and potentially damaging that he can't allow it to become public. The irony is dripping off this one, folks. And there's a good chance that the story hasn't played itself out yet.

My advice: wait ... watch ... and be amazed!

Then raise a little hell!