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The al-Jazeera Dodge

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 2, 2005; 1:54 PM

For some reason, the White House refuses to provide a straight answer to this question: Did President Bush raise the idea of bombing the headquarters of the al-Jazeera television network in an April 2004 conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- and if so, was he serious or was he joking?

Reporters who have asked press secretary Scott McClellan to respond to the claim first published in the British Daily Mirror almost two weeks ago have gotten two crude non-denial denials.

The first one was delivered last week, in an e-mail to the Associated Press: "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response," McClellan wrote.

The next day, I predicted in my column that "nothing arouses White House reporters more these days than a non-denial denial." But I apparently overestimated the mainstream press corps' baloney detectors.

Since then, McClellan has been publicly asked about the al-Jazeera story precisely once. He was asked for a comment at Wednesday's mid-day press briefing (here's the full text ). And in response, he played dumb. "Q I know you've been asked before about the so-called al-Jazeera memo, but Europeans are making quite a big deal about it. Can you assure them that even if the President did say what he was alleged to have said he was doing that in jest?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Can I assure them what?

"Q That if the President really did make those comments, he was doing so in jest?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Make what comments?

"Q About allegedly bombing al Jazeera --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Any such notion that we would engage in that kind of activity is just absurd.

"Q Well, do you know if the comments were made?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know what comments you're referring to. I haven't seen any comments quoted.

"Q Somebody said that they had a memo, or that they took notes during --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Let me just repeat for you, Connie. Any such notion that America would do something like that is absurd."

The reporter then pointed out that in 2001, American bombs exploded in al-Jazeera's Kabul bureau, which the Pentagon later said was not on purpose.

"Q They bomb them in Afghanistan then -- their office.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry? Whose offices? The terrorist offices.

"Q We bombed their office in Afghanistan, and killed their -- some of their people in --

"MR. McCLELLAN: And the military talked about that. What are you suggesting? I hope you're not suggesting that they're targeting civilians, because that's just flat-out wrong."

Butwhy won't McClellan say the same about the report of the Bush-Blair meeting, too?

And where were the follow-up questions? Nobody in the briefing room pursued the issue any further, and nobody even said one word about al-Jazeera at yesterday's briefing .

By contrast, the corps was downright dogged yesterday when it came to rooting out the details of Bush's summons to jury duty in Crawford. Now there's a big story.

The Coverage (Such as it Is)

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write on Newsweek's Web site: "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. . . .

"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. . . .

"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.'"

The Daily Mirror story -- and the ensuing legal action, brought Wadah Khanfar, the director general of al-Jazeera, to London looking for answers.

Richard Beeston writes in the Spectator: "The scourge of the Pentagon and the rabble-rouser of the Arab masses had just been to Downing Street to deliver a letter to the Prime Minister demanding an explanation. Had the British leader talked Bush out of bombing al-Jazeera's headquarters in the Qatari capital Doha, as a leaked transcript of their conversation stated? If it was just a bad joke, as some Whitehall official had suggested, why had the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith threatened to prosecute any further revelations under the Official Secrets Act? Why were two government insiders under investigation for leaking the document?"

Khanfar himself writes in the Guardian: "I brought many questions with me to London; it would seem that I shall return to Doha - where al-Jazeera is based - with even more misgivings. Officials in Britain have come up with nothing, and their silence is likely to reinforce suspicion and mistrust. This will not be the end of the road; we are taking legal advice and won't rest until we know the full truth. . . .

"If it is true that Bush had indeed thought of bombing the al-Jazeera headquarters in Doha, this will undoubtedly constitute a watershed in the relationship between government authorities and the free media."

Jeremy Scahill writes in the Nation: "The meeting took place on April 16, at the peak of the first US siege of Falluja, and Al Jazeera was one of the few news outlets broadcasting from inside the city. Its exclusive footage was being broadcast by every network from CNN to the BBC.

"The Falluja offensive, one of the bloodiest assaults of the US occupation, was a turning point. In two weeks that April, thirty marines were killed as local guerrillas resisted US attempts to capture the city. Some 600 Iraqis died, many of them women and children. Al Jazeera broadcast from inside the besieged city, beaming images to the world. On live TV the network gave graphic documentary evidence disproving US denials that it was killing civilians. It was a public relations disaster, and the United States responded by attacking the messenger. . . .

"On April 15 Donald Rumsfeld echoed those remarks in distinctly undiplomatic terms, calling Al Jazeera's reporting 'vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable. . . . It's disgraceful what that station is doing.' It was the very next day, according to the Daily Mirror, that Bush told Blair of his plan. 'He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere,' a source told the Mirror. 'There's no doubt what Bush wanted to do--and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it.' "

The White House and the Media, Part II

The White House right now faces another media-related scandal, this one over multiple reports that the U.S. military arranged for positive stories about the war to be published in Iraqi newspapers under the guise of independent journalism.

McClellan dodged questions about that story yesterday by saying it's too early to comment.

It's interesting how quick the White House is to condemn its enemies based on whatever information is available. But when it comes to actions by the administration, the standard of proof is apparently quite high. Multiple media reports, or even an indictment, are apparently not sufficient to elicit anything even remotely like censure.

Mark Mazzetti and Borzou Daragahi broke the story in the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday.

Jonathan S. Landay had more for Knight Ridder Newspapers on Thursday.

But here's how it went in yesterday's briefing :

"Q What's the White House opinion on the military using this Lincoln Group to plant stories in Iraqi newspapers?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've seen the reports. We first learned about it when we saw the reports yesterday, I think in the Los Angeles Times was the first place that that was reported. We are very concerned about the reports. We have asked the Department of Defense for more information. General Pace has asked people to look into the matter and get the facts, and so we want to see what those facts are.

" Q Well, the military has admitted that they've been doing it. Does the White House find that acceptable, unacceptable?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, what the Pentagon has said is that they don't have all the facts, they want to gather the facts and then talk about it further. We want to know what those facts are, too. We are very concerned about the reports that we have seen."

"Q So this is a bit of a hypothetical, but should it be determined that, in fact, they have been doing this, would the President find that acceptable -- "

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not going to engage in a hypothetical. Let's find out what those facts are.

"Q Well, then what is the basis of your concern?

"MR. McCLELLAN: The reports that we've seen -- the media reports.

"Q But if you're concerned, that suggests that you would not approve of this.

It went on and on for a while.

"Q Well, would his views be similar on this particular issue?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I've expressed our views on this issue at this point."

McClellan then tried to change the subject, but the redoubtable Helen Thomas refused to let him.

"Q Who's watching the store, really? How can we spend millions of dollars to plant positive stories in Iraq and nobody around here knows --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this is --

"Q -- anything about it? How is that possible?

"MR. McCLELLAN: This is based off some media reports. We want to find out what those facts are."

Bush on the Economy

The White House would much rather the media focused on the good news about the economy than all those negative things making headlines day after day. So in a last-minute addition to his schedule, Bush himself came out to the Rose Garden this morning to talk up the latest economic figures.

"Thanks to good, old-fashioned American hard work and productivity, innovation, and sound economic policies of cutting taxes and restraining spending, our economy continues to gain strength and momentum," he said.

After a three minute statement , he turned on his heels and left without taking any questions.

Card to GOP: We'll Tell You More About Iraq

The Associated Press reports: "Bush's chief of staff told GOP congressional leaders that the White House would communicate more with lawmakers about Iraq. The leaders welcomed Andrew Card's commitment and followed it by providing 'constructive criticism,' said a Republican official who attended the GOP retreat in St. Michaels, Md. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was private."

Gwyneth K. Shaw previewed the GOP retreat in the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday: "Top Republican congressional leaders and senior White House aides will gather today at a resort on Maryland's Eastern Shore for a private, two-day retreat."

Shaw reported that everyone was to stay at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels. "The nonprofit Congressional Institute is picking up the tab for the stay. Double rooms for tonight cost $165 to $295, according to the hotel's Web site."

About the Congressional Institute

So who are these guys who are picking up the tab?

John Stanton wrote in National Journal's CongressDaily (subscription required) back in May: "Since 1987, the nonprofit Congressional Institute has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars provided by lobbyists and their clients to send lawmakers and their staff to the annual GOP leadership, chief of staff and bicameral retreats.

"And the Institute has worked with the House and Senate Republican Conferences to set up retreat agendas, develop discussion materials for members and select speakers at the tightly controlled meetings, according to federal campaign finance records and interviews with current and former congressional aides. . . .

"The Institute's board is made up of a group of Washington lobbyists that includes Duberstein Group's Dan Meyer, General Motors' Kenneth Cole, David Bockorny of Bergner, Bockorny, Castagnetti, Hawkins & Brain, Dukto Group's Gary Andres and Ernst & Young's Bruce Gates -- many of whom also have longstanding Capitol Hill ties. Meyer, for example, served as former House Speaker Gingrich's chief of staff. . . .

"According to the group's tax returns for 2002 and 2003, the Institute had about 40 donors who gave a total of about $2.3 million each year. Most of those donors are represented by one or more members of the Institute's board -- including UPS, SBC Communications, Verizon and Union Pacific Corp.. . . .

"Although the group is nominally nonpartisan and non-political, the arrangement between the Republican establishment and the Congressional Institute is close enough to give pause to veteran campaign finance observers."

Also in May, Wes Allison of the St. Petersburg Times quoted Frances Hill, a national expert in tax-exempt organizations at the University of Miami, saying: "The question then is: Is there an organization there at all, that really is a properly organized and operated tax-exempt organization, or is it a mere conduit that's just been created to interpose something between the lobbyist and the member of Congress?

"It's one thing to have an organization that has its own purposes and diverse sources of funding and its own programs. But if you've got this shell in the middle, is that a different case? And how do we know?"

Watchdog Report

Michael J. Sniffen writes for the Associated Press: "Companies lobbying government, colleges seeking star speakers and groups eager for information or face time paid for $2.3 million in trips over six years for White House officials, a watchdog organization reported Wednesday. . . .

"More than 620 White House aides took free trips between late 1998 and late 2004 to speak to conferences in Paris, Rome and other foreign capitals, Hawaii and Florida, ski resorts in Colorado and Switzerland. Of course, less exotic locales, like Detroit, Cleveland and Oklahoma City, also were among more than 350 destinations."

Here's the report, from the Center for Public Integrity .

Plame Watch

After The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei wrote on Tuesday that Karl Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, apparently considered Time reporter Viveca Novak's upcoming testimony key to clearing Rove's name, I asked in my column : "What could Novak possibly know that is exculpatory for Rove? I can't even imagine."

Yesterday, Jane Hamsher of the firedoglake blog floated a plausible scenario: "Rumor has it that in May of 2004 when Cooper and Russert were first subpoenaed, 'inveterate gossip' Viveca knew that Matt Cooper's source was Karl Rove and she just happened to mention it to her buddy Luskin. Luskin is now claiming that this surprise revelation to his memory-challenged client is what prompted them to go hunting through his emails. . . ."

And by golly, Richard W. Stevenson and Douglas Jehl write in today's New York Times: "Mr. Rove's lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, spoke in the summer or early fall of 2004 with Viveca Novak, a reporter for Time. In that conversation, Mr. Luskin heard from Ms. Novak that a colleague at the magazine, Matthew Cooper, might have interviewed Mr. Rove about the C.I.A. officer at the heart of the case, the people said. . . .

"[A]fter his conversation with Ms. Novak, who is not related to the columnist, Mr. Luskin asked Mr. Rove to have the White House search for any record of a discussion between Mr. Rove and Mr. Cooper around the time that Ms. Wilson's identity became public in July 2003.

"The search turned up an e-mail message from Mr. Rove to another senior White House official, Stephen J. Hadley, who was the deputy national security adviser, that recounted a conversation between Mr. Rove and Mr. Cooper. On Oct. 14, 2004, Mr. Rove went before the grand jury again to alter his earlier account, by saying he had also discussed the C.I.A. officer with Mr. Cooper. . . .

"But Mr. Fitzgerald appears to be evaluating whether Mr. Rove came forward with the e-mail and his new testimony only after it became apparent that Mr. Cooper might be compelled to testify about it. It is not clear precisely what Ms. Novak told Mr. Luskin, or what the context for their conversation had been."

Arkin Asks

Washingtonpost.com's national security blogger William Arkin regularly raises really interesting questions. Here he is on Bush's Iraq strategy: "Look, it is the President who insists on labeling Iraq as 'the central front in the global war on terror,' as 'an essential element in the long war against the ideology that breeds international terrorism.' He says that 'the fate of the greater Middle East -- which will have a profound and lasting impact on American security -- hangs in the balance.' I don't buy either of these assumptions, but if the administration is serious in its rhetoric, isn't it strange that they are now saying that they are willing to leave Iraq before the insurgency is 'defeated,' that they are willing to entrust the security of THE UNITED STATES to a brand new, unknown, unproven, untested Iraqi military and police force?"

Krugman Says

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) that the White House's " National Strategy for Victory in Iraq " is "an important test for the news media. The Bush administration has lost none of its confidence that it can get away with fuzzy math and fuzzy facts -- that it won't be called to account for obvious efforts to mislead the public. It's up to journalists to prove that confidence wrong. . . .

"Are the news media still too cowed, too addicted to articles that contain little more than dueling quotes to tell the public when the administration is saying things that aren't true? Or has the worm finally turned?"

I guess Krugman wasn't sufficiently impressed with the fact-checking I chronicled in my column yesterday .

Rosa Parks and the Voting Rights Act

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "While honoring civil rights hero Rosa Parks, President Bush on Thursday delighted modern-day black leaders by calling on Congress to renew the provisions of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that are set to expire. . . .

"That declaration surprised many of the civil rights leaders, Parks relatives and politicians who had gathered at the White House for the signing ceremony. They erupted in applause and rose to give Bush a standing ovation.

"The Rev. Jesse Jackson lavishly praised Bush for committing to seeing the expiring portions of the Voting Rights Act extended. He called the president's public urging 'a significant breakthrough' since he had previously declined even in private to support the renewal."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks.

Cheney Watch

Apparently, the safety zone for Vice President Cheney doesn't extend very far beyond military installations and GOP fundraisers either. (See my Tuesday column about Bush's safety zone.)

Cheney's next public appearance? Next Tuesday, he travels to the U.S. Army garrison at Fort Drum in upstate New York to give a speech to the 42nd Infantry Division and the 10th Mountain Division.

Jury Duty

Tommy Witherspoon broke the big story in the Waco Tribune-Herald yesterday: "McLennan County officials are waiting for Crawford resident George W. Bush, potential juror number 286, to respond to a summons to report Monday for jury duty. . . .

"The last time Bush's jury duty surfaced in news media accounts sparked controversy involving several questions on his juror questionnaire that were left blank, including a question about previous arrests."

Ralph Blumenthal writes today in the New York Times: "There was a scheduling conflict, so a certain McLennan County rancher will not show up Monday in Waco for jury duty after all.

"'The president has other commitments,' said the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan.

"No problem, said Judge Ralph T. Strother of State District Court, though President Bush's name had popped up on a random list of Texans summoned for jury service. Judge Strother said he had now given Mr. Bush, who owns a 1,600-acre ranch outside Crawford, a choice of six other dates from January to June 2006."

Who's the Humble Man?

Bush made brief remarks last night at the Pageant of Peace, before lighting the National Christmas Tree.

"Each year, we gather here to celebrate the season of hope and joy -- and to remember the story of one humble life that lifted the sights of humanity," Bush said, barely pausing before moving on to: "Santa, thanks for coming."

Christmas Under Siege

Americans United for Separation of Church and State notes in a press release: "The Rev. Jerry Falwell and his Religious Right cohorts have been complaining for weeks now about government agencies and store clerks saying 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas' but it looks like Falwell forgot to tell President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush and the Republican National Committee about the preferred religiously correct greeting.

"The White House's 2005 holiday card is just out, and it doesn't mention the word "Christmas" once.

"The card, mailed under the auspices of the Republican National Committee and signed by the president and his wife, reads, 'With best wishes for a holiday season of hope and happiness 2005.' "

Late Night Humor

From "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno":

"Did you hear this rumor? According to a new report out of England, one of those English newspapers said that President Bush had plans to bomb the al-Jazeera TV network. Yeah. But that was met with disagreement by Dick Cheney, who wanted to bomb CNN instead."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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