A British civil servant has been charged under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly leaking a government memo that, according to a newspaper report Tuesday, suggests Prime Minister Tony Blair persuaded U.S. President George W. Bush not to bomb the Arab satellite TV station Al-Jazeera.
According to the Daily Mirror, Bush spoke of targeting Al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar, when he met Blair at the White House on April 16 last year. The U.S. government has regularly accused Al-Jazeera of being nothing more than a mouthpiece for anti-American sentiments.
The Daily Mirror attributed its information to unidentified sources. It quoted one source, which it said was in the government, as saying that the alleged threat was "humorous, not serious," but it quoted another as saying "Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair." "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told The Associated Press in an e-mail. Blair's Downing Street office declined to comment on the report, stressing it never discussed leaked documents.
Al-Jazeera said in a statement that it was investigating the report and hoped the White House and Downing Street would either challenge it or explain the comment.
The network said that if true the report would "cast serious doubts" on the Bush administration's explanations of earlier incidents involving Al-Jazeera journalists and the American military. An Al-Jazeera journalist died in April 2003 when the channel's Baghdad office was struck during the U.S. bombing campaign. The State Department said the strike was a mistake.
Al-Jazeera's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, was destroyed by a U.S. missile in November 2002. None of the crew was inside. U.S. officials said they believed the target was a terrorist site and did not know it was Al-Jazeera's office.
Britain's tabloids are known for their aggressive, but not always accurate, reporting. The Daily Mirror lost some of its credibility after it printed photos last year that purported to show British troops abusing Iraqi detainees.
The pictures turned out to be fake, the Mirror apologized and its top editor resigned. The document was described as a transcript of a conversation between Bush and Blair. Cabinet Office civil servant David Keogh is accused of passing it to Leo O'Connor, who formerly worked for former British lawmaker Tony Clarke. Both Keogh and O'Connor are scheduled to appear at London's Bow Street Magistrates Court next week, the AP reports.
Peter Kilfoyle, a former defense minister in Blair's government, called for the document to be made public. Sir Menzies Campbell, foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said that, if true, the memo was worrying.