The government has warned media organisations they are breaking the law if they publish details of a leaked document said to show U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to bomb Arabic television station Al Jazeera.
The government’s top lawyer warned editors in a note after the Daily Mirror newspaper reported on Monday that a secret government memo said Prime Minister Tony Blair had talked Bush out of bombing the broadcaster in April last year.
Several British newspapers reported the attorney general’s note on Tuesday and repeated the Mirror’s allegations, which the White House said were “so outlandish” they did not merit a response. Blair’s office declined to comment.
Al Jazeera, which has repeatedly denied U.S. accusations it sides with insurgents in Iraq, called on Britain and the United States to state quickly whether the report was accurate.
“If the report is correct then this would be both shocking and worrisome not only to Al Jazeera but to media organisations across the world,” the Qatar-based station said in a statement.
The story would also be a shock for Qatar, a small Gulf state which cultivates good relations with Washington.
The Mirror said the memo came from Blair’s Downing Street office and turned up in May last year at the local office of Tony Clarke, then a member of parliament for Northampton. Clarke handed the document back to the government.
Leo O’Connor, who used to work for Clarke, and civil servant David Keogh were charged last Thursday under the Official Secrets Act with making a “damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations”.
The Mirror said Bush told Blair at a White House summit on April 16 last year that he wanted to target Al Jazeera. The summit took place as U.S. forces in Iraq were launching a major assault on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
The paper quoted an unnamed government official suggesting Bush’s threat was a joke but added another unidentified source saying the U.S. president was serious.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: “We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response.”
The attorney general told media that publishing the contents of a document which is known to have been unlawfully disclosed by a civil servant was a breach of the Official Secrets Act.
Kevin Maguire, the Mirror’s associate editor, said government officials had given no indication of any legal problems with the story when contacted before publication.
“We were astonished, 24 hours later, to be threatened with the Official Secrets Act and to be requested to give various undertakings to avoid being injuncted,” he told BBC radio.
Al Jazeera said that, if true, the story would raise serious doubts about the U.S. administration’s version of previous incidents involving the station’s journalists and offices.
In 2001, the station’s Kabul office was hit by U.S. bombs and in 2003 Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed in a U.S. strike on its Baghdad office. The United States has denied deliberately targeting the station.