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Wednesday, November 23, 2005 

Official Secrets Act threatened against newspapers over Bush memo.

I think this must pretty much confirm that it's true:

The attorney general last night threatened newspapers with the Official Secrets Act if they revealed the contents of a document allegedly relating to a dispute between Tony Blair and George Bush over the conduct of military operations in Iraq.

It is believed to be the first time the Blair government has threatened newspapers in this way. Though it has obtained court injunctions against newspapers, the government has never prosecuted editors for publishing the contents of leaked documents, including highly sensitive ones about the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

The attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, last night referred editors to newspaper reports yesterday that described the contents of a memo purporting to be at the centre of charges against two men under the secrets act.

Under the front-page headline "Bush plot to bomb his ally", the Daily Mirror reported that the US president last year planned to attack the Arabic television station al-Jazeera, which has its headquarters in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where US and British bombers were based.

Richard Wallace, editor of the Daily Mirror, said last night: "We made No 10 fully aware of the intention to publish and were given 'no comment' officially or unofficially. Suddenly 24 hours later we are threatened under section 5 [of the secrets act]".

Under section 5 it is an offence to have come into the possession of government information, or a document from a crown servant, if that person discloses it without lawful authority. The prosecution has to prove the disclosure was damaging.

And that may well prove difficult. This memo only seems damaging to Bush - Blair for once comes off well, as according to the Mirror Blair made clear how idiotic such an act would be. Not only would it be an attack on an ally country, it would be an attack on the freedom of the press worldwide. Al-Jazeera is actually the most balanced Arabic news-station by quite some margin, and has recently signed up some notable western figures, including Sir David Frost. It plans to launch an English language station shortly.

More desperate however is the way in which the government has overreacted to the publishing of this memo by threatening the draconian Official Secrets Act. On the surface this is because it would bring the current case against the original leaker into contempt, but that seems like a wholly bogus argument. The government never threatened media organisations in this way over the leaks of the attorney general's legal advice over the war in Iraq. It also never took action against the Sun for leaking the findings of the Hutton inquiry - most likely because it was Alastair Campbell who did the leaking. The government seems to be taking the hard route to prevent high embarrassment to Bush at a time when things are not going well on the other side of the Atlantic.

If the memo is an actual transcript of a conversation between Bush and Blair, which seems highly likely, then it also brings back open the whole issue of the US bombing al-Jazeera in the past - in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The White House's official statement has been: "We are not going to dignify something so outlandish with a response." There have also been rumours that Bush was joking - that famed Texas droll.

We're unlikely to find out the whole truth unless someone with the memo decides to leak it onto the internet, and to be safe, to an American website. Cryptome which has obtained damaging documents and information in the past, has said it is happy to receive any information on it. Even if we do not find out the whole truth, the fact that the Bush administration seemingly saw that bombing al-Jazeera was justifiable because of their coverage of the reality in Iraq, and fear that they would show the truth of what was about to happen in Falluja, shows not only how paranoid the top wonks in Washington are, but also how they are prepared to deal with any dissent.

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