Last week, the British tabloid The Daily Mirror alleged that in the spring of 2004, President Bush suggested bombing the Qatar headquarters of al-Jazeera. The U.S. press has trod lightly on the story, which was based on a leaked memo that has not yet been published. But the rest of the world clamored for answers. Bob talks to Joel Campagna, senior program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last week, the British tabloid The Daily Mirror published a story suggesting that President Bush had, in the spring of 2004, considered bombing the offices of Al-Jazeera in Doha, Qatar, and that Tony Blair had to talk the President out of it. It is a huge accusation that that the American press really didn't know what to do with. The Mirror story was based on a purported top secret government document, what some are referring to as a "five-page memo." Two men were brought to court this week on charges, under Britain's Official Secrets Act, having to do with leaking that memo. Those proceedings will pick up again in January. Both the White House, the spokesman Scott McClellan, and Prime Minister Blair have denied and dismissed the charges. A member of Parliament has warned the British press not to publish the memo should they get their paws on it. Joel Campagna is the Committee To Protect Journalists' senior program coordinator for the Middle East. Joel, welcome to OTM.
JOEL CAMPAGNA:: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD:: What's CPJ's position on this incident?
JOEL CAMPAGNA:: Well, it's clearly a news item that has caused great alarm among media professionals across the globe. And I think both the Bush administration and Blair administration need to set the record straight on what was said or not said at this April 2004 meeting. I think the failure to do so only fuels speculation that the motives of the U.S. military in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where Al-Jazeera bureaus were actually struck by the U.S. military, that those attacks were deliberate.
BOB GARFIELD:: You know, you make an interesting point here. This story does not occur in a vacuum because Al-Jazeera has been hit, if not necessarily targeted, in the past.
JOEL CAMPAGNA:: In Iraq on April 8th of 2003, which is one of the last days of fighting in the war phase of the U.S. invasion, a U.S. air-to-surface missile struck just outside the bureau of Al-Jazeera's Baghdad office, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub. Now, there's conflicting details about what exactly took place. We know that the strike took place in an area of very heavy fighting, that also, according to some journalists, journalists from Abu Dhabi Television who were nearby, that perhaps a villa used by the Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf had been nearby and perhaps an intended target. On the flip side, we know that Al-Jazeera, weeks before the war began, had provided the Pentagon with coordinates of its bureau, with the hopes of sparing it from U.S. fire. Another item that is worth mentioning is that moments after the missile strike on the bureau, journalists from Abu Dhabi TV, which was located very close to the Al-Jazeera bureau, came under fire from a U.S. tank, which opened fire with small arms fire at journalists who were filming on the roof of the bureau. So again, it's a case that cries out for clarification on the part of the U.S. military. And to date, all we've heard is essentially the explanation that was given the day of the incident, which was that the U.S. military was responding to enemy fire coming from the Al-Jazeera bureau, something which has been vehemently denied by Al-Jazeera.
BOB GARFIELD:: When the British Attorney General Oliver Goldsmith invoked the Official Secrets Act, and essentially threatened British papers for pursuing this story, some people said, ah-ha, it's a smoking gun, if they're reacting so badly, obviously the memo reflects exactly what The Daily Mirror said it reflects. But the conversation between Blair and Bush also reportedly was about various operational details of the war and sources and methods, details about intelligence gathering and so forth. And I suppose it's entirely possible that no such conversation ever took place or that the President had just made one of his lame jokes, and that the British government would want to suppress the memo because of the other things from that meeting that it contains.
JOEL CAMPAGNA:: Well, I mean, sure. And certainly one way of shedding light on this would be to release the memo in question. But short of that, I think there is an opportunity for the White House and Tony Blair's office to provide more detail about what took place.
BOB GARFIELD:: You know, for serious journalists, this is a hard story to cover. It's based on a report of a memo that nobody's actually seen, that surfaced in a newspaper that doesn't have the greatest track record for accuracy. And because it's so incendiary a charge and there's so little actual evidence, it just puts the press in a difficult spot. But that aside, let's just say it is determined that the President did, in fact, suggest to Tony Blair that the Coalition bomb Al-Jazeera. And let's say he wasn't joking, my God, what then?
JOEL CAMPAGNA:: I think any time you have a head of state discussing military action against a news organization, that is, talking about military action in violation of international humanitarian law, which specifically prohibits the targeting of media unless, of course, they are used for military purposes, something which would be an extremely difficult argument to apply to Al-Jazeera.
BOB GARFIELD:: Joel Campagna is a senior program coordinator for CPJ. Okay, Joel. Thank you very much.
JOEL CAMPAGNA:: My pleasure. Thank you, Bob. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]