Two men appeared in court Tuesday accused of mishandling official secrets in connection with a memo that 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.
Khanfar said he was not assuming that the Mirror's original report was true, but said that it deserved to be cleared up.
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, The Los Angeles Times reports.