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2005-11-29

Al Jazeera in the Crosshairs: Did Bush Really Want to Bomb the Arabic TV Network’s Headquarters in 2004?

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The Arabic satellite network Al Jazeera continues to search for answers over reports President Bush wanted to bomb its headquarters in Doha. We speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill about the Bush administration’s attacks on Al Jazeera and Dima Tahboub, the widow of Al Jazeera Baghdad reporter, Tareq Ayoub, who was killed April 8th, 2003 when the U.S. military bombed the network’s office in Iraq. She is considering suing the US government for her husband’s death. [includes rush transcript]

The Arabic satellite network Al Jazeera continues to search for answers over reports President Bush wanted to bomb its headquarters in Doha. Last week the Daily Mirror cited a secret British memo revealing Bush told Tony Blair in April 2004 of his desire to bomb the news outlet.

The Bush administration has described the Daily Mirror’s report as "outlandish." After refusing to comment on the story for close to a week, on Saturday Blair called the Mirror report a "conspiracy theory." On Monday, Blair responded to a parliamentary request whether he had any information on the Bush administration’s plans to bomb Al Jazeera. Blair’s written response was one word: "None."

Al Jazeera’s managing director, Wadah Khanfar, arrived in London Friday to petition for a meeting with Blair to discuss the leaked memo. He said, "Al Jazeera is not just a TV station. It has become something people are very attached to. People are angry." He added that the network would consult lawyers to see what further action could be taken.

Meanwhile, the British government has banned the British media from disclosing the memo’s contents. It has also pressed charges against two former government officials for leaking classified government information. The Bush administration has long been critical of Al Jazeera. This is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld speaking in 2001.

  • Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, October 2001 (Excerpted from the documentary "Control Room")

In August of last year, the U.S.-backed Iraqi government banned the network from reporting in Iraq. This after the U.S. bombed Al Jazeera’s bureaus in Afghanistan in November 2001 and Baghdad in April 2003. It claimed both bombings were accidental. But this claim was immediately put into question following reports Al Jazeera had given the US military its coordinates so as to avoid any accidental bombing. This is Ibrahim Hilal, senior editor at Al Jazeera when the Kabul office was bombed by the U.S. Hilal was interviewed Democracy Now shortly afterwards.

The April 2003 bombing of the Al Jazeera bureau in Baghdad killed Al Jazeera correspondent Tariq Ayoub — again after Al Jazeera had given the US military its coordinates in Baghdad. This is Al Jazeera Senior Producer Samir Khader, appearing on our program in May of last year.

Today, we are joined by two guests:

  • Dima Tahboub, widow of killed al Jazeera reporter Tariq Ayuob. She has announced she is considering suing the US government for her husband’s death. She joins us from Amman, where she is a professor at the University of Jordan.
  • Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! correspondent and independent journalist. He is currently a Puffin Writing Fellow at the Nation Institute. He has written a new article for The Nation website titled "Did Bush Really Want to Bomb Al Jazeera?"

Check out the new blog by Al Jazeera staffers: Dontbomb.blogspot.com.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, in an excerpt from the documentary Control Room.

DONALD RUMSFELD: We know that Al Jazeera has a pattern of playing propaganda over and over and over again. What they do is when there’s a bomb goes down, they grab some children and some women and pretend that the bomb hit the women and the children. And it seems to me, that it’s up to all of us to try to tell the truth, to say what we know, to say what we don’t know, and recognize that we’re dealing with people that are perfectly willing to lie to the world to attempt to further their case. And to the extent people lie, ultimately, they are caught lying, and they lose their credibility. And one would think it wouldn’t take very long for that to happen, dealing with people like this.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, from the documentary, it was excerpted in Control Room. In August of last year, the US-backed Iraqi government banned the network from reporting in Iraq, this after the US bombed Al Jazeera’s bureaus in Afghanistan in November 2001 and Baghdad in April 2003. It claimed both bombings were accidental. But this claim was immediately put into question following reports Al Jazeera had given the US military its coordinates so as to avoid any accidental bombing. This is the Ibrahim Hilal, the senior editor at Al Jazeera when the Kabul office was bombed by the United States. Hilal was on Democracy Now! shortly afterwards. And I asked him about Al Jazeera’s response.

IBRAHIM HILAL: That we tried to blame the situation from the Washington side. We asked our office in Washington to contact Pentagon. And it was very weird from them to ask us back about the location of our office in Kabul, although we told them that location several times before, because we were afraid of the office could be bombed by mistake. So we gave them the location several times. Yesterday they asked us for the location again.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was after the bombing?

IBRAHIM HILAL: Yeah. And we didn’t respond. We gave them the location exactly once more. And they didn’t respond why they bombed it.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibrahim Hilal, senior editor for Al Jazeera on Democracy Now!, November 2001. Then there was the April 2003 bombing of the Al Jazeera bureau in Baghdad that killed the Al Jazeera correspondent, Tariq Ayoub, again after Al Jazeera had given the US military its coordinates in Baghdad. This is Al Jazeera senior producer, Samir Khader, appearing on Democracy Now! in May of last year.

SAMIR KHADER: We really were scared, because after our office in Kabul was targeted and deliberately, as we think, we thought that the Americans could at any time target our office and pretend that they didn’t know. So we gave them the coordinates. So giving them the coordinates or not giving them the coordinates, they will know.

AMY GOODMAN: Al Jazeera senior producer, Samir Khader, appearing on Democracy Now! in 2004. Well, today we’re joined on the phone by Tariq Ayoub’s widow, Dima Tahboub. She has announced she is considering suing the U.S. government for her husband’s death. She is joining us on the phone, from Amman, where she’s a professor at the University of Jordan. And joining us in our Firehouse studio, is Democracy Now! correspondent, Jeremy Scahill, who is now a Fellow at The Nation magazine and wrote a piece in the magazine called "Did Bush Really Want to Bomb Al Jazeera?" And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! Before we go to Dima Tahboub in Amman, give us an overview, Jeremy, of the timeline and the chronology of Al Jazeera, the Bush administration and bombings.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, nothing puts the lie to the Bush administration’s absurd claim that it invaded Iraq to bring democracy to the Middle East more than its war against Al Jazeera. Perhaps no institution in that region has done more to promote free thinking, a free flow of ideas and dialogue, than Al Jazeera. That’s not to say that the network is not without criticism. But in terms of broadening the dialogue, hands down, Al Jazeera is the institution that’s done it the most.

And the Bush administration has relentlessly pursued an attack to Al Jazeera, the bombing of its offices in November of 2001 in Kabul, Afghanistan; also in that bombing they hit the BBC. And then in Iraq, during the invasion of Iraq, early on in the first week of April, when Tariq Ayoub was killed by the United States, a few days before that, the offices of Al Jazeera in Basra, in the southern city of Basra, were shelled. The Al Jazeera journalists were in the Sheraton Hotel in Basra. They were the only guests in the hotel. The offices were shelled.

And it was a few days later that Tariq Ayoub was reporting on Al Jazeera from their offices along the banks of the Tigres on the siege of Baghdad. And Al Jazeera had an incredible angle on the fighting, visually. I remember I was at that Al Jazeera office many times when I was in Baghdad, and they had an incredible view to the siege of Baghdad. And Tariq Ayoub was providing eyewitness on-the-ground reports. And the United States hit that office and killed Tariq Ayoub.

And the point here is that the United States, in all of the journalists, and there are at least 13 that have been killed by the United States in Iraq, they either rule it a justified killing or they rule it a mistake. And there is a lot of information to indicate that these are not mistakes. The shelling of the Palestine Hotel, Amy, which you’ve done a lot of reporting on, as well, all of this happening in the first week of April. And Al Jazeera has paid a higher price than almost any media outlet since the so-called war on terror began.

What’s interesting to note about this alleged remark that Bush made to Tony Blair, suggesting allegedly that he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar, is — and it’s something that’s being missed in a lot of the coverage, is the timeline of what was happening in April of 2004, when Bush allegedly made this remark to Tony Blair. It was during the original siege of Fallujah, April 4th, 5th, the United States laid siege to the city. Within a week, 600 Iraqis were dead, most of them women and children. Resistance was fierce, 30 Marines were killed. The United States hit a mosque, hit the minaret of a mosque and killed, reports say, a dozen people. And inside of the city, there was an Al Jazeera team that was uploading images to the world. And so, all of the images that were being seen globally were coming from Al Jazeera, whether you were watching CNN or the BBC. And the correspondent for Al Jazeera, Ahmed Mansour, a long-time veteran journalist, who currently has two programs on Al Jazeera, well-known journalist, was inside the city and was saying the Americans don’t want us to be here, and we will remain to tell the story of what’s happening in Fallujah. And U.S. officials attacked him by name, very viciously calling him a liar.

And there was a very high-profile attack happening against Al Jazeera at the highest levels of the U.S. government, to the point where you have Donald Rumsfeld saying, quote, "What Al Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable," when he was asked by — this was on April 15, 2004. He’s asked by a reporter, "Do you have a civilian casualty count?" And Rumsfeld says, 'Of course not, we're not in the city. But you know what our forces do. They don’t go around killing hundreds of civilians. That’s just outrageous nonsense. It’s disgraceful what that station is doing.’

And what Al Jazeera was doing was providing images of what the reality of war is. They were showing the piles of bodies in the streets. They were showing the blown-off limbs. They were showing that there was a domestic, not foreign, insurgency that was resisting the U.S. forces as they attempted to take the city. And so, Donald Rumsfeld is talking about disgraceful, vicious Al Jazeera. The next day, Tony Blair meets with President Bush at the White House, and that’s when Bush allegedly floated the idea of bombing Al Jazeera.

This capped off a week of public attacks against Al Jazeera, in which Mark Kimmitt, the primary spokesperson for the U.S. military in Iraq declared, quote, "The stations that are showing Americans intentionally killing women and children are not legitimate news sources. That is propaganda, and that’s lies." General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. Central Command, saying the next day, on April 12, ’It’s always interesting to me how Al Jazeera manages to be at the scene of the crime whenever a hostage shows up or some other problem happens to be there. So they are — they have not been truthful in their reporting. They haven’t been accurate.’ And so, it was a few days later that Bush meets with Blair, very plausible that this was discussed, because the administration was in the throes of a very high-level temper tantrum aimed at Al Jazeera.

AMY GOODMAN: Dima Tahboub, also on the line with us, widow of Tariq Ayoub, lecturer at University of Jordan. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

DIMA TAHBOUB: Thanks for having me on once again. I’ve been on Democracy Now! about three years ago, which was very emotional then. The thing is, what I think is that the report did not bring anything new to us, as we know as victims of what’s happened then. We’ve known all then that it was intentional. We tried to prove that. Even Al Jazeera has disclosed a press release, saying that. It has supplied the American Pentagon with the coordinates of the office. Let’s assume even if that was a mistake, bombing Al Jazeera offices in Baghdad, if that was a mistake, was the second bombing of the Abu Dhabi office also a mistake? Was the third bombing of Palestine Hotel, where lots of the foreign correspondents resided then, was that a mistake also? So, we’ve tried to prove that all along.

It was not new for us. The new thing is that it released to the world the American intentions. And unfortunately, it’s being gagged now. And I’m afraid that it will be swept under the carpet once more. All these three years, it was really [inaudible], we tried to obtain justice. We tried to bring the generals of the American Army to justice. It was, we tried that in Belgium. We tried that in — I went also to the United Kingdom. I even consulted with the Center for Constitutional Rights in the United States. And [inaudible] that I should lose any hope and I should suffice with the letter of apology that I got from the American embassy or something related to the American Army, I got a letter of apology, then telling me it was a mistake and so on. So we’ve tried all along these three years to prove that it was intentional.

And it — the American Army was given the coordinates of the office. They knew that. Even the word "press" was spelled in very clear letters on the office. It knew all then that this was a press office. And the thing is that even this report, as you know, victims, people being hurt by what’s happened then, it all boils down into the killing of a very promising young man, a faithful husband, a devoted father, and the widowing of a 27-year-old wife and the orphaning of a one-and-a-year-half-old daughter. No one refuses to — sorry, everyone refuses to hear this story, to hear our part of the story, because of the American domination of all press, maybe press foundations and all media. No one — everybody refuses to hear our side or our part of the story. And still now, justice has not been done to us. And I’m afraid, with the gagging of this report, everything is going to be, you know, the world will still live in blindness.

And we have only a period of three or four months, and we lose our opportunity in pursuing any legal case against the American Army, because such cases, such rights fall with the progression of time. So it’s — we have no time except this time to pursue any legal course against the American government. And when this opportunity came to us, now also we’re being forbidden to pursue our legal rights and to bring the perpetrators to justice, because of the gagging on that report. So what I call on every human organization, every press foundation, every freedom organization to help us to raise the case once again, wherever they are in the United States, in the United Kingdom, because this is really our last chance for Tariq’s soul to rest in peace and for us to come to terms with our grief. This is our last chance. Next April, three years will have passed, and we’ll lose any opportunity, any chance to raise any case, any legal course whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you going to sue?

DIMA TAHBOUB: We have tried that more than once. We have consulted, and it seems now that the prospects are — it’s more promising than before. But with the gagging of the report, you know, we’re still consulting with our lawyers what to do. We’re still calling on the British government to release the report. So we’re taking it one step at a time.

AMY GOODMAN: Has the a Jordanian government been helpful?

DIMA TAHBOUB: No, because here we have a problem with the Jordanian law, is that if we raise the case in Jordan, probably the American embassy would refuse to accept it or would refuse to attend any trial, would refuse if there’s an indictment or something of the sort, it would refuse to apply. So the problem is that maybe the Jordanian government would refuse the case all together because of lack of specialization, meaning that we’re not — the Jordanian law does not give you the right to pursue — sorry, to sue a person from another country.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. We’ve been covering the Javier Couso case, that’s — Javier is the brother of Jose Couso, who just an hour or two after your husband was killed at Al Jazeera, the Palestine Hotel was bombed. And Jose Couso and Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian cameraman for Reuters, Jose was a cameraman for Telecinco in Spain, also died. Now a Spanish judge has just issued an international arrest warrant for three of the U.S. military officials involved with Jose’s killing.

DIMA TAHBOUB: Yes. I’ve heard the news. And I’ve consulted with a lawyer here in Jordan. We’re going to take the first step, which is, you know, filing the case against the American Army. And we’ll take it from there. Because we don’t know if it’s going to — the case is not going to be accepted, accepted or not accepted, even in principle, that we’re suing someone from a foreign country or from another country. So I’m trying to find other legal outlets, you know, probably in the United Kingdom with the help of some supporters from the United States and so on. This is why I really need the help of any organization, because, you know, even when Tariq was targeted, he was not targeted as a person. He was targeted as a person working in a certain press foundation or media foundation. So this is why it’s very difficult to pursue on a private matter; that is, a wife or the family. We need the help of Al Jazeera itself and, you know, any lovers of freedom and human rights.

AMY GOODMAN: Dima Tahboub, I want to thank you very much for being with us, widow of Tariq Ayoub. She is a lecturer at University of Jordan. Tariq Ayoub, killed on April 8, 2003, when the U.S. military attacked the Al Jazeera offices in Baghdad. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a final comment from Democracy Now! correspondent, Jeremy Scahill.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman with Democracy Now! correspondent, Jeremy Scahill, who is a Fellow at the Nation Institute and has written a piece in the latest Nation: "Did Bush Really Want to Bomb Al Jazeera?"

As we wrap up, a quick comment: In The Nation about a year ago, Christian Parenti wrote a piece about two other Al Jazeera reporters. They were imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for months. "Salah Hassan," Christian Parenti wrote, "looks sad and very tired. The Al Jazeera cameraman, 33-year-old father of two, recounting his tale of incarceration in a soft and matter-of-fact tone." It says: "He explains how on November 3 of last year he raced to the site of a roadside bomb attack near the Iraqi city of Baquba. While he was interviewing people at the scene, U.S. troops, who had previously taken photographs of Hassan at other events, arrested him, took him to the police station, interrogated him, repeatedly accused the cameraman of knowing in advance of bomb attacks and of lying in wait to get footage. Hassan said: 'I told them to review my tapes. It was clear I had arrived 30 or 40 minutes after the blast.'

“From Baquba, Hassan says, he was taken to the military base at Baghdad International Airport, held in a bathroom for two days, flown hooded and bound to Tikrit after two more days in another bathroom, loaded into a five-truck convoy of detainees shipped to Abu Ghraib. Once inside the sprawling prison, he was greeted by U.S. soldiers who sang 'Happy Birthday' to him through his tight plastic hood, stripped him naked and addressed him only as 'Al Jazeera boy' or 'bitch.' He was forced to stand hooded, bound and naked for 11 hours in the bitter autumn night air.

"Elsewhere in Abu Ghraib," jumping forward in the piece, "Hassan’s colleague Suheib Badr Darwish was also in lockup. He’d been arrested in Samarra. According to a colleague of his at Al Jazeera, Darwish was badly beaten by U.S. troops."

Summarize, Jeremy.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Amy, I think that the — perhaps Al Jazeera’s greatest transgression against the Bush administration has simply been being there; and the real crime of Al Jazeera is un-embedded journalism. Remember that chilling remark that Victoria Clark made on the eve of the invasion (and we’ve talked about it on this program before), saying, "You should not be there," to un-embedded journalists. And Al Jazeera has always been there. So, is it 'outlandish' or 'unfathomable' (Interesting choices of words that the White House throws out there — not 'untrue,' not 'false.'), or is it a deadly serious option that was on the table? Well, the only way we’re going to know is if a British media organization, or a group of them, defy the Official Secrets Act. And I would call for a 'Three Musketeering' of the situation: 'All for one.' If one of them gets it, they should all publish it and stand up against the Official Secrets Act, because what really is under attack here is un-embedded journalism.

The great public secret, the gorilla in the room about Al Jazeera, is that it’s not anti-American. It’s not even anti-Bush. Bush has received over 500 hours of coverage on Al Jazeera. Bin Laden has received about five. Al Jazeera was the first Arabic network to interview Israeli officials, and they continue to do that. Condoleezza Rice has been on Al Jazeera numerous times. The fact is that Al Jazeera shows the true face of war. It’s not that they’re a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda. Some accuse it of being a mouthpiece for the Bush administration. It’s that they’re practicing a form of journalism that, quite simply stated, is independent journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a letter from the leading reporter in Fallujah.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, Ahmed Mansour, who was the correspondent in Fallujah during the siege, who was reporting and was the one who vowed not to leave, 'even though the Americans want us to,' wrote a letter on the 29th of April to the U.S. military, protesting the attacks against him in the media and in front of cameras. Not just that, also protesting the attacks against Al Jazeera in Fallujah. I’m quoting here from Ahmed Mansour’s letter. He said: "On the tenth of April" — this is at the height of the siege of Fallujah — "the American fighter jets fired around our new location and they bombed the house where we had spent the night before, causing the death of the house owner, Mr. Hussein Samir. Due to the serious threats, we had to stop broadcasting for a few days, because every time we tried to broadcast, the fighter jets spotted us and we came under their fire." Yet another time when an Al Jazeera — an institution being used by Al Jazeera was allegedly hit by the United States.

This man, Ahmed Mansour, clearly the United States has a mini-obsession with him. Sami Al-Hajj, who’s an Al Jazeera cameraman who has spent three-and-a-half years without charge at Guantanamo, says that he was interrogated over 130 times, a hundred of them focused in on Al Jazeera connections to al-Qaeda; and he was asked about Ahmed Mansour a number of times during the course of these harsh interrogations at Guantanamo. And so the United States has been trying very, very hard to spin Al Jazeera as an al-Qaeda mouthpiece.

But for anyone who has followed, and I mean really followed Al Jazeera’s reporting, the true crime here, Amy, is un-embedded journalism; and that’s why it’s so important for all media organizations to stand up right now and demand the truth. Demand that the memo be released and that all organizations should simultaneously publish it in Britain as a defiance of the Official Secrets Act. It’s unacceptable that we don’t know whether or not Bush was serious about this threat to bomb Al Jazeera, and we shouldn’t have to have another bombing take place to make this a story.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, thanks very much for being with us. And earlier, when we played the Donald Rumsfeld clip, the Secretary of Defense, that clip attacking Al Jazeera was as far back as October of 2001. Jeremy Scahill of The Nation, a Fellow at the Nation Institute, a Democracy Now! correspondent. And the website of the Al Jazeera reporters and staff that they’re keeping right now.

JEREMY SCAHILL:That’s right. A couple of Al Jazeera journalists have set up a website called: DontBomb.blogspot.com. That’s DontBomb.blogspot.com.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will link to it at DemocracyNow.org.

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