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The Case of the Secret Memo

Nov. 30, 2005 - A British government crackdown on government leaks may have backfired by calling world attention to an ultrasensitive secret memo whose alleged contents have embarrassed President George W. Bush and strained relations between London and Washington. The document allegedly recounts a threat last year by Bush to bomb the head office of the Arabic TV news channel Al-Jazeera.

U.K. authorities consider the memo, described as minutes or a transcript of an April 16, 2004, White House meeting between Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, so diplomatically sensitive that Blair’s attorney general last week warned U.K. media by e-mail that they could face prosecution under the country's draconian Official Secrets Act if they reported on its contents. But all the legal threat appeared to do was call more attention to the still-mysterious document and, at a minimum, appear to confirm its existence.

Bush administration officials initially dismissed the memo’s allegations about Bush’s threat against Al-Jazeera as "outlandish." U.S. officials later suggested that if Bush did talk with Blair about bombing Al-Jazeera, the president was only joking. Asked directly today about Bush's purported threat to bomb Al-Jazeera, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said: "Any such notion that we would engage in that kind of activity is just absurd." McLellan did not respond to follow-up questions as to whether Bush actually said what the memo says he did.
But a senior official at 10 Downing Street, Blair’s official residence, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, recently seemed to give credence to the Al-Jazeera threat. The official told NEWSWEEK London Bureau chief Stryker McGuire: "I don't think Tony Blair thought it was a joke."

One of the few journalists to claim to have had a detailed briefing on the memo’s contents–the Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire–also says the document indicates that Blair took Bush’s threat so seriously he spent part of the meeting trying to dissuade Bush from attacking Al-Jazeera. The only significant leak so far of the document’s alleged content surfaced in the Daily Mirror, a tabloid known for its frequent criticism of the U.S. president. Last week, the Mirror reported that the memo detailed a discussion in which Bush told Blair he planned to bomb Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar. The satellite channel is celebrated in the Arab world for its popularity and influence but often reviled in Washington for its broadcasts of video messages by Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.

The Bush-Blair meeting occurred as U.S. military forces were engaged in bitter fighting with Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. According to the Mirror, Al-Jazeera had infuriated policymakers in both Washington and London by broadcasting what they saw as inflammatory pictures of the fighting from behind enemy lines, including images of dead U.S. soldiers.

But given that what the Daily Mirror knows and doesn't know about the document–its reporters have never actually seen a copy–it is likely the purported Al-Jazeera comment never would have gotten the attention it has had it not been for the British government's decision to invoke the Official Secrets Act.

At a public meeting earlier this week at a London press club, Maguire, the Mirror journalist who coauthored the paper’s story, said that the memo had been written by officials at 10 Downing Street, that it was five pages long and that it carried markings indicating it was classified "Top Secret." But Maguire indicated he did not actually have a copy of the document. Instead, he suggested he had spoken to someone who had access to it.

Maguire said that the U.K. government was very keen to keep the document under wraps, and that other contents he had heard about include details of a "full and frank" discussion between Bush and Blair about U.S. military operations at the time in Fallujah. The Mirror journalist indicated he was legally bound from discussing further details.

Maguire declined to discuss how the Mirror found out about the document or its contents. But evidence suggests that news media only learned of the document because the U.K. government decided to file criminal charges against two men who apparently were involved in leaking it.

British authorities announced on Nov. 17 that former parliamentary researcher Leo O’Connor and David Keogh, a former official at the British Cabinet Office (the U.K. equivalent of the White House staff), had been charged under the Official Secrets Act with "making a damaging disclosure of a document relating to international relations" without official authorization. The two men appeared in court this Tuesday and were released on bail. O’Connor told the court he intended to plead not guilty, but Keogh did not indicate how he would plead.

The charges filed against the men said the official-secrets law allegedly was violated between April 16 and May 28 of last year. But authorities gave no further details of the document’s contents or the reasons why U.K. authorities regarded it as so sensitive.

According to an account given by the Mirror’s Maguire at London’s Frontline Club, the memo appears to have leaked out of the government’s inner circle in the spring of 2004 when it made its way to Tony Clarke, then a member of Parliament affiliated with Tony Blair’s Labour Party. According to the Mirror’s account, the document simply "turned up" at a constituency office Clarke maintained in the town of Northampton, north of London. According to other U.K. media accounts, Clarke indicated he got the document from his researcher, O’Connor. Clarke told U.K. journalists that because he served as a part-time police officer, he instantly recognized the sensitivity of the document and turned it over to police. Clark, who lost his seat in Parliament earlier this year, could not be located for comment.

According to Maguire, some of the extreme sensitivity surrounding the document apparently relates to references in the paper to troop movements or deployments in Iraq–information Clarke believed would be inappropriate for publication. Another U.K. media source close to the controversy said that the memo also may contain references to "intelligence streams" or clues to secret intelligence sources and methods.

According to British news reports, the two men charged in the leak investigation were first picked up by British authorities toward the end of the summer of 2004. However, the link to the Bush-Blair document did not appear to be made until formal charges were filed against O’Connor and Keogh earlier this month.

Because of the Daily Mirror’s reputation for Bush-bashing and sometimes erratic fact-checking (the paper’s editor was fired after he approved publication of what turned out to be faked pictures showing British troops abusing detainees in Iraq), the paper’s initial report about the memo and Bush’s alleged threat against Al-Jazeera was largely dismissed or ignored–especially by U.S. media. But the Mirror’s allegations sparked an international uproar after U.K. Attorney General Lord Peter Goldsmith sent his e-mail to British editors last week warning them of possible prosecution if they published any more of the sensitive document’s contents. "If the attorney general hadn’t issued his warning, the story probably would have died," one British media executive following the controversy said.

Now the suppressed document has become a cause célèbre: Maguire told the Frontline Club that bloggers and other publications from around the world have indicated a willingness to defy the U.K. government and publish the document in full–if they can only get their hands on it. A delegation of senior Al-Jazeera officials this week also visited London to investigate the seriousness of the threat against their network. Said Al-Jazeera’s director-general, Wada Khanfar: "We are taking [this allegation] very seriously because it concerns our very life and our organization. It concerns journalism as a whole and our audience all over the world so we are indeed very concerned about it … We came to London with many questions and were [looking] to find answers, but because of the attorney general’s warning against publishing the memorandum and the vague general statements that came from 10 Downing Street and the White House, we still do not know exactly what the context was nor do we do know many details aside from what has been published. So [far] we have not had any official communication from Downing Street nor the U.S. We have only heard general statements that did not really say much."

With Stryker McGuire and Ginanne Brownell in London

Date posted: December 3, 2005 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 8