LONDON — A civil servant has been charged under Britain’s Official Secrets Act for allegedly leaking a government memo that a newspaper said Tuesday suggested that Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded President Bush not to bomb the Arab satellite station Al-Jazeera.
The Daily Mirror reported that Bush spoke of targeting Al-Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, when he met Blair at the White House on April 16, 2004. The Bush administration has regularly accused Al-Jazeera of being nothing more than a mouthpiece for anti-American sentiments.
The Daily Mirror attributed its information to unidentified sources. One source, said to be in the government, was quoted as saying that the alleged threat was “humorous, not serious,” but the newspaper quoted another source as saying that “Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair.”
“We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told The Associated Press in an e-mail.
Blair’s office declined to comment on the report, stressing it never discussed leaked documents.
Al-Jazeera said in a statement that it was investigating the report. “If the report is correct then this would be both shocking and worrisome not only to Al-Jazeera but to media organizations across the world,” it said.
In Qatar, Al-Jazeera said it was aware of the report, but did not wish to comment. The U.S. Embassy in London said it was making no comment.
The document was described as a transcript of a conversation between the two leaders.
Court appearance next week
Cabinet Office civil servant David Keogh is accused of passing it to Leo O’Connor, who formerly worked for former British lawmaker Tony Clarke. Both Keogh and O’Connor are scheduled to appear at London’s Bow Street Magistrates Court next week.
According to the Crown Prosecution Service, Keogh was charged with an offense under Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act relating to “a damaging disclosure” by a servant of the Crown of information relating to international relations or information obtained from a state other than the United Kingdom.
O’Connor was charged under Section 5, which relates to receiving and disclosing illegally disclosed information.
According to the newspaper, Clarke returned the memo to Blair’s office. Clarke did not respond to calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Press Association, the British news agency, said Clarke refused to discuss the contents of the document. PA quoted Clarke as saying his priority was to support O’Connor who did “exactly the right thing” in bringing it to his attention.
Peter Kilfoyle, a former defense minister in Blair’s government, called for the document to be made public.
“I think they ought to clarify what exactly happened on this occasion,” he said. “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,” the newspaper quoted Kilfoyle as saying.
Sir Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said Tuesday that, if true, the memo was worrying.
“If true, then this underlines the desperation of the Bush administration as events in Iraq began to spiral out of control,” he said. “On this occasion, the prime minister may have been successful in averting political disaster, but it shows how dangerous his relationship with President Bush has been.”
Al-Jazeera offices in Iraq and Afghanistan have been hit by U.S. bombs or missiles, but each time the U.S. military said they were not intentionally targeting the broadcaster.
In April 2003, an Al-Jazeera journalist was killed when its Baghdad office was struck during a U.S. bombing campaign. Nabil Khoury, a State Department spokesman in Doha, said the strike was a mistake.
In November 2002, Al-Jazeera’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan, was destroyed by a U.S. missile. None of the crew was at the office at the time. U.S. officials said they believed the target was a terrorist site and did not know it was Al-Jazeera’s office.
Meantime, NBC News analyst Bill Arkin says that while there is no military order to bomb any media outlet, the U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha has been given responsibility for exploiting and disrupting the communications and computer systems of news media outlets worldwide.
Arkin says the center of this effort is the Network Attack Support Staff, which while assigned to Stratcom, is headquartered at Ft. Meade, Md.
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