Did George W. Bush really want to bomb Al-Jazeera?
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That's what the U.K.'s Daily Mirror newspaper says.
According to the summary of a top-secret memo published last month in the Daily Mirror, President Bush expressed a desire to bomb the headquarters of Al-Jazeera during an April 16, 2004, meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair. Al-Jazeera is an Arabic-language TV news network headquartered in the Persian Gulf state Qatar.
Can you trust what the Daily Mirror reports? Of course you can. It's a serious newspaper. Remember, it's the publication that, in September, presented the world with the shocking (shocking!) revelation that supermodel Kate Moss used cocaine with, of all people, her famously drug-addicted rock star boyfriend.
The reaction to the Al-Jazeera bombing has been as interesting as the story itself. Chanel and Burberry immediately dropped President Bush as a spokesmodel. And the British government immediately warned the British press that they would face prosecution under the U.K.'s Official Secrets Act if they reported any more details from the top-secret memo.
The two men allegedly involved in leaking the memo are already on trial for doing so.
When asked if he had any knowledge of a Bush administration initiative to bomb Al-Jazeera, Blair replied with a single word: None.
On this side of the Atlantic, the reaction was quieter, for the most part because the American press hasn't really hammered the White House for details. The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. diplomat saying that if Bush made any remarks about bombing Al-Jazeera at the meeting, it was probably just one of his nutty, presidential jokes. Bush is, after all, a man whose idea of humor is performing a skit to the Washington press corps about searching for WMD at the same time that American soldiers were dying in Iraq, supposedly on that very same mission. And don't forget, jokes about killing journalists are surefire laugh-getters in Republican circles, such as, "My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building." Conservative princess Ann Coulter said that in 2002.
The strongest indication to me that there's at least some truth to the story (meaning that Bush said something to Blair about bombing Al-Jazeera, jokingly or otherwise) is that the White House has not yet denied the story. Instead of a denial, the White House offered one of those classic, American-style political statements that kinda sorta sounds like a denial without actually being one. White House spokesman Scott McClellan wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press: "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response."
Until the memo itself is actually published, which isn't likely to happen soon, we won't know for sure what was said in the April 16, 2004, Bush-Blair meeting, or whether any references to bombing Al-Jazeera were serious.
One thing is absolutely certain, though. The suggestion that the U.S. might bomb Al-Jazeera is anything but outlandish. After all, the U.S. has already bombed Al-Jazeera twice.
In November 2001, the U.S. bombed Al-Jazeera's office in Kabul, Afghanistan. And in April 2003, an American A-10 aircraft fired two missiles at Al-Jazeera's Baghdad office, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub.
In both cases, Al-Jazeera had informed the Pentagon of the location of their offices precisely to avoid accidental attack. The Pentagon, however, claimed that both buildings were enemy sites. Officials called the Kabul building an al-Qaeda site and claimed that people were firing on U.S. forces from the Al-Jazeera Baghdad office.
It's also worth noting that the April 16, 2004, meeting took place just one day after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a press conference that Al-Jazeera's coverage of the war in Iraq "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable." He was referring to Al-Jazeera's reports that U.S. forces had killed civilians during the U.S. assault on Fallujah taking place at the time. Rumsfeld's outburst was one of the countless attacks on Al-Jazeera's coverage of American military operations.
In fairness, it should be pointed out that bombing journalists is not a uniquely Republican enterprise. In April 1999, NATO, led by the Clinton administration, bombed the Serbian state television building, killing 16 civilians. Since oral sex was not involved, no one much cared.