MADELEINE BRAND, host:
It's not Iraq that's been dominating the headlines in Britain over the last few days but rather allegations that President Bush wanted to bomb the Arab news channel Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera's headquarters are in Doha, Qatar. That's an ally. Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper is reporting that in April of last year, the president told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera. At the time, Al-Jazeera was critical of a major US campaign in the Iraqi town of Fallujah. The White House has described the Daily Mirror's allegations as inconceivable.
I spoke earlier with Jonathan Freedland in London. He writes for the British newspaper The Guardian.
And, Jonathan, what exactly did the Daily Mirror report?
Mr. JONATHAN FREEDLAND (The Guardian): They claim to have seen a memo written which effectively described--a transcript if you like, almost a minutes of the meeting between President Bush and Tony Blair in April of 2004, where they were said to have had this exchange on the subject of a plan to bomb the headquarters, as you say, of Al-Jazeera. And according to this account, Tony Blair's reaction was, `What a minute there, George. This is not a good idea. This will cause trouble.' And it's that memo that has leaked its way into the Daily Mirror.
BRAND: Well, the Mirror also says--someone else is saying the president may have been making a joke.
Mr. FREEDLAND: That is the claim, that this is so outlandish that surely he was jest--joshing. My guess is that, if it was a joke, would it have made it into a minute, into a memo. And also, that seems to contradict the sheer force of the British reaction, trying to shut this story down. If it was just a joke, I'm not sure they'd be going to the lengths they are, in fact, going to.
BRAND: And what are those lengths?
Mr. FREEDLAND: Well, they have brought out a pretty rare form of prosecution under Britain's Official Secrets Act of the man they say is the mole, the leaker. His name is David Keogh, a former official in our Cabinet office, which is in effect the equivalent of the White House. It's the office that serves the prime minister. He's said to have passed this memo to Leo O'Connor who's a researcher to a former Labor member of Parliament. And so they've traced it to him and they are going after him with the Official Secrets Act, which is pretty rare. It's something all public servants sign but prosecutions under it are extremely infrequent and that's already sent a kind of signal to the press that this is not just business as usual. This is being taken very seriously.
BRAND: And has David Keogh had anything to say since this information has gone public?
Mr. FREEDLAND: So far nothing really from him. There's been a veil drawn over him and essentially he's been gagged by the fact that there is this prosecution out there against him. The attorney general has not only made sure that there's nothing more in the memo, but he's really tried to give the whole wider press a warning here to back off and probably not approach Keogh or anyone else. It's said that the attorney general gave a full dressing-down to editors the other day and--to signal to them that this does not end here, that he takes very seriously this leak and there are rules to prevent its wider publication. And that itself has sparked all kinds of speculation about: Is it just the story itself? Do they fear there are other things in other memos, or are they trying to lay down some kind of marker, draw a line in the sand and say, you know, this relationship between President Bush and Tony Blair cannot become fair game for all kinds of other leaks? And that has people here really speculating that really maybe there is more to this and more revelations to come.
BRAND: Well, regarding this particular incident, wouldn't the simplest way to refute these allegations be to just simply publish the transcript of that conversation?
Mr. FREEDLAND: That's been the demand that my own paper has made. Let's see a full transcript. What the official word would be, `Well, we can't do that. That would involve setting a precedent that private summit meetings between heads of government will instantly be disclosed,' and they don't want that. But, of course, it does make people think, `Well, maybe there's a very good reason why they don't want this leak,' which is that perhaps it will show it was not a joke that the president was making, that he meant it in earnest.
BRAND: And, of course, Al-Jazeera offices in Iraq and Afghanistan were hit by US bombs and missiles; each time, of course, the US saying that those attacks were mistakes.
Mr. FREEDLAND: Well, in that sense it is a nightmare, I would have thought, for both the British and American authorities, these attacks on the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad, where Al-Jazeera were headquartered, and other attacks, as you mention, have been claimed by Al-Jazeera as deliberate attempts to attack journalists. And until now the administration, backed actually by London, has said, `Oh, no, no. Pure coincidence.' This seems to confirm the worst fears of the skeptics and to cast them as telling the truth in this particular case. So this is what's terribly damaging for I think both London and Washington and I think also the idea of Blair putting a restraining hand on George Bush, that also goes to a critique that people have heard, some of them sympathetically of Tony Blair, saying that's why it's so good that he's so close to Bush. He reins him in. And for others, it sort of casts Bush as somehow trigger-happy. Blair, you know, constantly reaching for the cold flannel to mop his forehead and calm him down. That's not a flattering image, really, for either of them.
BRAND: Jonathan Freedland of the British newspaper The Guardian, joining us from London. Thanks, Jonathan.
Mr. FREEDLAND: Thank you.
BRAND: And NPR did call the White House for comment on this story and got no response. Earlier in the week, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the allegations were so outlandish, they did not merit a response.
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