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, 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. [UPDATE: As you might expect, Juan Cole has more on the story, including its historical context, including two other deadly attacks on Al Jazeera offices launched by Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq.]
Below are some details from the various stories on the matter in the UK press: [Excerpts]: The five-page transcript of a conversation between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair reveals that Blair talked Bush out of launching a military strike on the station, unnamed sources told the daily which is against the war in Iraq. The transcript of the pair's talks during Blair's April 16, 2004 visit to Washington allegedly shows Bush wanted to attack the satellite channel's headquarters. Blair allegedly feared such a strike, in the business district of Doha, the capital of Qatar, a key western ally in the Persian Gulf, would spark revenge attacks…
Al-Jazeera had sparked the anger of the US administration by broadcasting video messages from al Qaida head Osama bin Laden and leaders of the insurgency in Iraq, as well as showing footage of the bodies of US servicemen and Iraqi civilians killed in fighting.
According to the Mirror's source, the transcript records a conversation during Mr Blair's visit to the White House on April 16 last year, in the wake of a failed attempt to root out insurgents in the city of Fallujah, in which 30 US Marines died…
A source told the Mirror: "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. There's no doubt what Bush wanted to do -- and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it."
Another source said: "Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men."
…Former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle - a leading Labour opponent of the Iraq War - 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."
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell told PA: "If true, then this underlines the desperation of the Bush administration as events in Iraq began to spiral out of control. 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." [END excerpts]
Or as Shakespeare said: "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go."