President Bush expressed interest in bombing the headquarters of the Arabic television network al-Jazeera during a White House conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair in April 2004, a British newspaper reported Tuesday.
The Daily Mirror report was attributed to two anonymous sources describing a classified document they said contained a transcript of the two leaders' talk. One source is quoted as saying Bush's alleged remark concerning the network's headquarters in Qatar was "humorous, not serious," while the other said, "Bush was deadly serious."
In Washington, a senior diplomat said the Bush remark as recounted in the newspaper "sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke." But, the diplomat said, "it was foolish for someone to write it down, and now it will be a story for days."
"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.
Al-Jazeera has frequently aired recorded statements from al Qaeda figures. Bush administration officials have contended that through that type of broadcasting the network often serves as a conduit for terrorist propaganda.
In 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, a U.S. missile hit the network's office in Baghdad, killing a correspondent. U.S. officials called the incident an accident. In 2001, American bombs exploded in its bureau in Kabul, Afghanistan. Washington said the targeting officers did not know that the site was an office of the television service, believing instead that it was used by al Qaeda.
A former senior U.S. intelligence official said that it was clear the White House saw al-Jazeera as a problem, but that although the CIA's clandestine service came up with plans to counteract it, such as planting people on its staff, it never received permission to proceed. "Bombing in Qatar was never contemplated," the former official said.
A spokesman for Blair's office declined to comment on grounds that the document is part of a criminal investigation. Two civil servants have been charged with violating Britain's Official Secrets Act for allegedly disclosing the document.
According to a source quoted in the Daily Mail, Blair told Bush that bombing al-Jazeera "would cause a big problem." The source was also quoted as saying: "There's no doubt what Bush wanted to do -- and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it."
The network is based in downtown Doha, the capital of Qatar, a Persian Gulf state that is closely allied with the United States and has allowed U.S. forces to base their military headquarters there during the Iraq war.
Al-Jazeera, in a statement released Tuesday evening, said it was trying to verify the newspaper's account and called on Blair's office to clear up the issue.
"If the report is correct, then this would be both shocking and worrisome not only to al-Jazeera but to media organizations across the world," the statement said. "It would cast serious doubts in regard to the U.S. administration's version of previous incidents involving Al Jazeera's journalists and offices."
Former defense minister Peter Kilfoyle, a member of Blair's Labor party who has strongly opposed the Iraq war, told the Press Association news agency Tuesday that officials at Blair's office should make the classified document public.
"If it was the case that President Bush wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in what is after all a friendly country, it speaks volumes," Kilfoyle told the agency. "And it raises questions about subsequent attacks that took place on the press that wasn't embedded with coalition forces."
Kilfoyle could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.
In the criminal case, Cabinet Office civil servant David Keogh is accused of passing a classified document in May 2004 to Leo O'Connor, formerly a researcher for Tony Clarke, then a member of Parliament from Blair's Labor Party. Clarke told the Mirror he returned the document to Blair's office immediately when he realized it was confidential. He said O'Connor did "exactly the right thing" by bringing it to his attention. Keogh and O'Connor are to appear in court next week.
Pincus reported from Washington.