- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

LONDON — British Attorney General Peter Goldsmith threatened yesterday to use the Official Secrets Act to block a newspaper from publishing details of a government memo that is reported to detail a threat by President Bush to attack the Arab world’s biggest satellite television station, Al Jazeera.

Reports varied as to whether Mr. Bush was joking when he made the remark in a conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Journalists at Al Jazeera, which is widely watched in the Arab world, were not amused. They demanded a full explanation from the U.S. president and an international investigation.

The two men met as Arab opinion was inflamed by coverage of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents in Fallujah, where four U.S. contractors had been brutally slain the week before.

On the day of the Bush-Blair meeting, Al Jazeera broadcast footage of kidnapped American soldier Keith Maupin, who had been seized a week earlier, sitting on a floor surrounded by masked gunmen.

The mass-circulation left-wing Daily Mirror emblazoned its front page Tuesday with the headline: “Bush Plot to Bomb his Arab Ally.” The Mirror said the memo — a transcript of a White House meeting between the two leaders in April 2004 — showed Mr. Blair as dissuading Mr. Bush from attacking the television station.

The main body of the story did not mention bombing, but did claim that Mr. Bush had threatened “military action” against Al Jazeera at its headquarters in Qatar and other places.

Asked on Tuesday about the Mirror report, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told the Associated Press: “We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response.”

Qatar, whose emir funds the nine-year-old channel to the tune of around $30 million annually, is an American ally and was the headquarters of U.S. Central Command during the 2003 war in Iraq.

The threat of a court injunction against a newspaper is very rare in Britain: The last cause celebre was in 1983, when the Guardian published a leaked document that led to the jailing of a junior British clerical official, Sarah Tisdall.

Such action has not been attempted in the United States since the Supreme Court struck down a government attempt to block publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

The legal action caused consternation among politicians, journalists and civil liberties groups.

A former defense minister in Mr. Blair’s government, Peter Kilfoyle, challenged the prime minister to publish the five-page transcript of the two leaders’ conversation. He said: “It’s frightening to think that such a powerful man as Bush can propose such cavalier actions.”

But Britain has a long tradition of secrecy and freedom of information is traditionally limited by a broad definition of state security.

A second newspaper, the Sunday Times, also referred to the memo but made no mention of the Al Jazeera “threat.” It said the memo contained “sensitive information on the situation in Iraq, including intelligence sources and details of future military movements.”

The Mirror article quoted one government official suggesting that Mr. Bush’s threat had been “humorous, not serious.”

But it quoted another, unnamed source familiar with the document as saying: “Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men.”

In the past, even inadvertent and humorous remarks have been known to embarrass presidents and cause diplomatic problems.

While preparing for a weekly radio address in August 1984, President Reagan ruffled the Soviet Union when he unknowingly joked into an open microphone.

“My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever,” he said. “The bombing will begin in five minutes.”

U.S. officials have long been angered by Al Jazeera’s airing graphic pictures of American casualties and prisoners and by its ability to obtain videos of several terrorist atrocities and propaganda statements.

Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office was bombed by American aircraft during the invasion of Iraq in April 2003. The United States maintained it was an accident but Al Jazeera denounced it as a deliberate provocation.

• Distributed by World News & Features.

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