The al-Jazeera Dodge
By Dan Froomkinwashingtonpost.com
Friday, December 2, 2005; 1:54 PM
For some reason, the White House refuses to provide a straight answer to this question: Did President Bush raise the idea of bombing the headquarters of the al-Jazeera television network in an April 2004 conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- and if so, was he serious or was he joking?
Reporters who have asked press secretary Scott McClellan to respond to the claim first published in the British Daily Mirror almost two weeks ago have gotten two crude non-denial denials.
The first one was delivered last week, in an e-mail to the Associated Press: "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response," McClellan wrote.
The next day, I predicted in my column that "nothing arouses White House reporters more these days than a non-denial denial." But I apparently overestimated the mainstream press corps' baloney detectors.
Since then, McClellan has been publicly asked about the al-Jazeera story precisely once. He was asked for a comment at Wednesday's mid-day press briefing (here's the full text ). And in response, he played dumb. "Q I know you've been asked before about the so-called al-Jazeera memo, but Europeans are making quite a big deal about it. Can you assure them that even if the President did say what he was alleged to have said he was doing that in jest?
"MR. McCLELLAN: Can I assure them what?
"Q That if the President really did make those comments, he was doing so in jest?
"MR. McCLELLAN: Make what comments?
"Q About allegedly bombing al Jazeera --
"MR. McCLELLAN: Any such notion that we would engage in that kind of activity is just absurd.
"Q Well, do you know if the comments were made?
"MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know what comments you're referring to. I haven't seen any comments quoted.
"Q Somebody said that they had a memo, or that they took notes during --
"MR. McCLELLAN: Let me just repeat for you, Connie. Any such notion that America would do something like that is absurd."
The reporter then pointed out that in 2001, American bombs exploded in al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau, which the Pentagon later said was not on purpose.
"Q They bomb them in Afghanistan then -- their office.
"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry? Whose offices? The terrorist offices.
"Q We bombed their office in Afghanistan, and killed their -- some of their people in --
"MR. McCLELLAN: And the military talked about that. What are you suggesting? I hope you're not suggesting that they're targeting civilians, because that's just flat-out wrong."
Butwhy won't McClellan say the same about the report of the Bush-Blair meeting, too?
And where were the follow-up questions? Nobody in the briefing room pursued the issue any further, and nobody even said one word about al-Jazeera at yesterday's briefing .
By contrast, the corps was downright dogged yesterday when it came to rooting out the details of Bush's summons to jury duty in Crawford. Now there's a big story.
The Coverage (Such as it Is)
Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write on Newsweek's Web site: "A British government crackdown on government leaks may have backfired by calling world attention to an ultrasensitive secret memo whose alleged contents have embarrassed President George W. Bush and strained relations between London and Washington. The document allegedly recounts a threat last year by Bush to bomb the head office of the Arabic TV news channel Al-Jazeera. . . .
"Bush administration officials initially dismissed the memo's allegations about Bush's threat against Al-Jazeera as 'outlandish.' U.S. officials later suggested that if Bush did talk with Blair about bombing Al-Jazeera, the president was only joking. . . .
"But a senior official at 10 Downing Street, Blair's official residence, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, recently seemed to give credence to the Al-Jazeera threat. The official told Newsweek London Bureau chief Stryker McGuire: 'I don't think Tony Blair thought it was a joke.'"
The Daily Mirror story -- and the ensuing legal action, brought Wadah Khanfar, the director general of al-Jazeera, to London looking for answers.
Richard Beeston writes in the Spectator: "The scourge of the Pentagon and the rabble-rouser of the Arab masses had just been to Downing Street to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister demanding an explanation. Had the British leader talked Bush out of bombing al-Jazeera's headquarters in the Qatari capital Doha, as a leaked transcript of their conversation stated? If it was just a bad joke, as some Whitehall official had suggested, why had the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith threatened to prosecute any further revelations under the Official Secrets Act? Why were two government insiders under investigation for leaking the document?"
Khanfar himself writes in the Guardian: "I brought many questions with me to London; it would seem that I shall return to Doha - where al-Jazeera is based - with even more misgivings. Officials in Britain have come up with nothing, and their silence is likely to reinforce suspicion and mistrust. This will not be the end of the road; we are taking legal advice and won't rest until we know the full truth. . . .
"If it is true that Bush had indeed thought of bombing the al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, this will undoubtedly constitute a watershed in the relationship between government authorities and the free media."
Jeremy Scahill writes in the Nation: "The meeting took place on April 16, at the peak of the first US siege of Falluja, and Al Jazeera was one of the few news outlets broadcasting from inside the city. Its exclusive footage was being broadcast by every network from CNN to the BBC.
"The Falluja offensive, one of the bloodiest assaults of the US occupation, was a turning point. In two weeks that April, thirty marines were killed as local guerrillas resisted US attempts to capture the city. Some 600 Iraqis died, many of them women and children. Al Jazeera broadcast from inside the besieged city, beaming images to the world. On live TV the network gave graphic documentary evidence disproving US denials that it was killing civilians. It was a public relations disaster, and the United States responded by attacking the messenger. . . .
"On April 15 Donald Rumsfeld echoed those remarks in distinctly undiplomatic terms, calling Al Jazeera's reporting 'vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable. . . . It's disgraceful what that station is doing.' It was the very next day, according to the Daily Mirror, that Bush told Blair of his plan. 'He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere,' a source told the Mirror. 'There's no doubt what Bush wanted to do--and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it.' "
The White House and the Media, Part II
The White House right now faces another media-related scandal, this one over multiple reports that the U.S. military arranged for positive stories about the war to be published in Iraqi newspapers under the guise of independent journalism.
McClellan dodged questions about that story yesterday by saying it's too early to comment.
It's interesting how quick the White House is to condemn its enemies based on whatever information is available. But when it comes to actions by the administration, the standard of proof is apparently quite high. Multiple media reports, or even an indictment, are apparently not sufficient to elicit anything even remotely like censure.
Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi broke the story in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.
Jonathan S. Landay had more for Knight Ridder Newspapers on Thursday.
But here's how it went in yesterday's briefing :
"Q What's the White House opinion on the military using this Lincoln Group to plant stories in Iraqi newspapers?
"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've seen the reports. We first learned about it when we saw the reports yesterday, I think in the Los Angeles Times was the first place that that was reported. We are very concerned about the reports. We have asked the Department of Defense for more information. General Pace has asked people to look into the matter and get the facts, and so we want to see what those facts are.
" Q Well, the military has admitted that they've been doing it. Does the White House find that acceptable, unacceptable?
"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what the Pentagon has said is that they don't have all the facts, they want to gather the facts and then talk about it further. We want to know what those facts are, too. We are very concerned about the reports that we have seen."
"Q So this is a bit of a hypothetical, but should it be determined that, in fact, they have been doing this, would the President find that acceptable -- "
"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to engage in a hypothetical. Let's find out what those facts are.
"Q Well, then what is the basis of your concern?
"MR. McCLELLAN: The reports that we've seen -- the media reports.
"Q But if you're concerned, that suggests that you would not approve of this.
It went on and on for a while.
"Q Well, would his views be similar on this particular issue?
"MR. McCLELLAN: I've expressed our views on this issue at this point."
McClellan then tried to change the subject, but the redoubtable Helen Thomas refused to let him.
"Q Who's watching the store, really? How can we spend millions of dollars to plant positive stories in Iraq and nobody around here knows --
"MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this is --
"Q -- anything about it? How is that possible?
"MR. McCLELLAN: This is based off some media reports. We want to find out what those facts are."
---Keep yapping you little bastard.
In prison you'll STILL be someones BITCH.---