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2 Britons Accused in Leak of Bush-Al Jazeera Memo

The document said the president had proposed to Blair in 2004 that the Arab TV channel be bombed, a newspaper reported this month.

November 30, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Two men appeared in court Tuesday accused of mishandling official secrets in connection with a memo that, according to a newspaper account, showed President Bush had proposed bombing the Arab news channel Al Jazeera and was talked out of it by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

When the Daily Mirror published its account Nov. 22, the White House dismissed it as ludicrous. "We are not going to dignify something so outlandish with a response," a White House official said at the time.

But officials of Qatar-based Al Jazeera, the Arab world's most influential satellite news channel, regard the denial as evasive. The station's general director has been in London this week seeking a clarification from Blair and asking that the memo be made public.

At the same time, prosecutors have said that if the Mirror and other newspapers publish the contents of the memo, they too could be liable under Britain's Official Secrets Act, which forbids publication of confidential government information. Newspapers have accused the government of trying to gag them to save the U.S. president from embarrassment.

According to published descriptions, the secret five-page memo is a detailed account of conversations between Bush and Blair in April 2004, when the war in Iraq had entered a particularly heated phase. It allegedly was passed in May or June 2004 from a Cabinet employee, David Keogh, to a staff member of a Parliament member.

The Parliament member, Anthony Clarke, found the memo in his office and returned it to the government, but not, apparently, before some people outside the government became familiar with its contents. Clarke, a member of Blair's Labor Party, has since left Parliament.

Keogh, a former communications officer, and Leo O'Connor, a researcher for Clarke, appeared in court Tuesday.

The charge against Keogh was a "damaging disclosure of a document" relating to international relations, while O'Connor was accused of receiving a document from a civil servant.

O'Connor pleaded not guilty; Keogh did not enter a plea. A lawyer for O'Connor told reporters that his client was surprised and "very disappointed" to have been charged. The case was adjourned until Jan. 10.

Al Jazeera General Director Waddah Khanfar said White House and Downing Street statements about the memo so far "do not satisfy anyone, especially Al Jazeera ... and journalists all over the world.... They are going to increase the doubts and the speculations."

Khanfar said he was not assuming that the Mirror's original report was true, but said that it deserved to be cleared up.

"I actually suspend any judgment until we know exactly the truth behind it," he said. "We have not received any official denial, neither an official confirmation. This is why we are here, in order to find out the whole truth about this document."

Since the Mirror article appeared, there have been suggestions that even if Bush and Blair had discussed military action against Al Jazeera, Bush must not have been serious.

Kevin Maguire, who co-wrote the Mirror article, said that his source, who was familiar with the document, had no doubt that Bush was serious. Maguire said he himself had not seen the document and therefore was keeping an open mind.

"I ... could be convinced in future that perhaps Bush just said something in a fury and never intended it that way, although the prime minister didn't interpret it that way," Maguire said.

Even though Al Jazeera is hugely popular in the Arab world and is situated in the capital of a country friendly to the United States, it frequently has been accused of having an anti-Western agenda, and of allowing itself to be used by Al Qaeda to spread the terrorist network's views.

Founded in 1996 and largely funded by the emir of Qatar, the news channel denies that it is for or against any government. Its reports and discussion shows have raised hackles in many Arab countries as well as the United States, its advocates point out.

In 2001, its office in Kabul, Afghanistan, was struck by a U.S. bomb, and in 2003, one of its correspondents in Baghdad was killed in a bombing. In both cases, U.S. officials denied that the channel had been targeted.

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Janet Stobart of The Times' London Bureau contributed to this report.

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