We broadcast from the headquarters of Arabic TV network Al Jazeera in Doha, Qatar–the place President Bush allegedly told Tony Blair he wanted to bomb. The report came out last November in Britain’s Daily Mirror, citing a secret British memo revealing that Bush told Blair in April 2004 of his desire to bomb the news outlet. Bloggers have pledged to publish the memo if it is leaked. We speak with British blogger Daniel Mason, who has been tracking the story of the Downing Street Memo. [includes rush transcript]
After the story broke, British Attorney General Lord Goldsmith activated the Official Secrets Act, threatening any publication that publishes any portion of the memo. Though never actually denying it, the Bush administration described the Daily Mirror’s report as "outlandish."
Days later, Al Jazeera’s managing director, Wadah Khanfar, arrived in London to petition for a meeting with Blair to discuss the leaked memo. He then published an article in the Guardian newspaper called "Why Did You Want to Bomb Me Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair?"
- Daniel Mason, Co-founder of Blair Watch, a British weblog tracking the story of the Downing Street Memo.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Daniel Mason. He’s co-founder of Blair Watch, a British blog tracking the story of this latest Downing Street memo. We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Dan.
DANIEL MASON: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you tell us the history of this memo?
DANIEL MASON: Well, as you say, the story first appeared in the Mirror newspaper in November last year, suggesting that there was a conversation between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, where Mr. Bush said he wanted to bomb Al Jazeera television station, reportedly because the American government was so unhappy with Al Jazeera’s reporting of the siege in Fallujah. At the same time we learned that two civil servants were to be prosecuted over the leak of the document. David Keogh worked at the Cabinet Office, and Leo O’Connor was a researcher for Labour M.P. Tony Clarke.
AMY GOODMAN: How did they get this memo?
DANIEL MASON: Nobody knows. The Mirror have never revealed their source, but David Keogh, we can only assume, picked it up as part of his work within the Cabinet Office, and he passed it to Leo O’Connor, who then probably passed it to his employer, Tony Clarke, because he didn’t know what to do with it. Tony Clarke then shared the memo with Labour M.P. Peter Kilfoyle, on the basis that he was an ex-Defense Minister and might have some understanding of the context of the memo and to seek his advice about what to do with it next.
AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?
DANIEL MASON: Then the prosecution — the prosecution was announced, and nothing more came from the government. The Official Secrets Act was threatened, and Lord Goldsmith essentially told the media that if there was any further discussion or if any more of the memo’s contents were revealed, then editors would be prosecuted.
AMY GOODMAN: So none of the British papers have published this memo?
DANIEL MASON: No. Nobody’s published anything since the original Mirror story. There’s been a little bit of comment in the press, but essentially the mainstream press have been kept quiet about it.
AMY GOODMAN: And what have the two civil servants been charged with?
DANIEL MASON: David Keogh has been charged with passing a secret document, and Leo O’Connor has been charged with receiving a secret document. And apart from that, we know very little else. There’s been a committal hearing in which both the civil servants have pleaded not guilty. And since then, virtually nothing has come out about it, with the exception of a Freedom of Information Act request, which was made by another British blogger, Steve Wood.
Now, he asked the Cabinet Office, under the British Freedom of Information regulations, if they would reveal the contents of the conversation between Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. The Cabinet Office refused to reveal any details, but they did say they held information relevant to the request. So that, we see, is the first confirmation that the story actually exists. Mr. Blair, of course, has described it as a conspiracy theory, and Mr. Bush, as you say, has described it as a joke, and the White House has said the claims are outlandish, or at press conferences Scott McClellan has said he has no idea what people are asking him about.
AMY GOODMAN: So, no one has actually denied this.
DANIEL MASON: Yes, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman last month, when Al Jazeera made a Freedom of Information request, said he had no idea what has been talked about and to the best of his knowledge there was never a conversation between Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair about the bombing of the Al Jazeera television station in Qatar.
AMY GOODMAN: To the best of his knowledge?
DANIEL MASON: To the best of his knowledge.
AMY GOODMAN: Now where do bloggers fit into this story?
DANIEL MASON: Essentially the mainstream media has appears to have abided by the Official Secrets Act threat, and they have not covered the story in any great detail since. A couple of news organizations, the Spectator magazine, which is a rightwing magazine that’s edited by Boris Johnson, a conservative M.P., he said that he would publish the memo if he could get hold of it, defy the Official Secrets Act and face jail. That was backed up by Private Eye, which is a more leftwing publication in Britain. Their editor, in his [inaudible] said that he would do the same. What we did was say, if any media organization receives this and publishes it, we would do the same on the internet. And we called on other bloggers to do the same, and the response was overwhelming. It became an internet story, in the absence of any real mainstream media coverage.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, you, Daniel Mason, bumped into Labour M.P. Kilfoyle, Peter Kilfoyle?
DANIEL MASON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, explain again. He saw this memo?
DANIEL MASON: Right. Peter Kilfoyle saw the memo and was so outraged by it, he wanted to leak it straightaway to the press.
AMY GOODMAN: Did he see the memo or a summary of the memo?
DANIEL MASON: We think he saw a transcript of the memo. We don’t think he saw the actual memo itself, but he hasn’t been clear on that. But what he did with the memo was he passed it to a guy called John Latham, a Democrat in San Francisco. He hoped that this would be released to the press in the States, and that would influence the American election. His intention was that it would cause problems for Mr. Bush.
But Mr. Latham and possibly the Democratic Party — we don’t know what level of discussion was had — decided not to release it, because they thought, perversely, that if the news came out that President Bush wanted to bomb Al Jazeera, that would actually be a vote-winner for the Republicans in the election. So, to date, we have heard nothing from the Americans since then.
We bumped into Mr. Kilfoyle actually at a local supermarket. He’s an M.P. for the constituency next to mine. And he said that Colin Powell was at the meeting where this was discussed, which nobody was aware of before. And he also said that he would be going public after Christmas, and saying that he’d pass the document along.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait one sec. Colin Powell was Secretary of State at the time.
DANIEL MASON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: This was in the midst of April 2004, which was just at the time of the siege of Fallujah, where Al Jazeera was threatened for broadcasting video images of the siege, the only news organization inside Fallujah.
DANIEL MASON: That’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. forces said they wouldn’t call a ceasefire unless Al Jazeera left, and tremendous threats against Ahmed Mansur, who we had on our program yesterday, the Al Jazeera correspondent who was in Fallujah at that time. So there’s tremendous rage, I think. At the time Rumsfeld called Al Jazeera evil and said that they were lying, as they were sending out these video images of casualties, civilian casualties.
DANIEL MASON: Yes. As the only news organization on the ground, if Al Jazeera were taken out of the equation, then there would be no coverage of what it was like to be on the receiving end of the siege of Fallujah. They talked about ceasefires during the siege, but according to Dahr Jamail, who went to Fallujah during the siege, there was no ceasefire. And when the American media was saying we’re having a ceasefire to allow the civilians that are left to leave, there was still fighter planes bombing, there was still action on the ground. So, without Al Jazeera’s reports, nobody would be any the wiser.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain again what this Labour M.P. Kilfoyle did, although you said Tony Clarke did not want to leak this, reportedly?
DANIEL MASON: Tony Clarke didn’t want to be publicly associated with the leak. His researcher Leo O’Connor was the guy who received the document. When he received the document, he was so scared by the magnitude of what he had that he passed it straight to his boss to hand back to the government.
AMY GOODMAN: So he didn’t want it.
DANIEL MASON: No.
AMY GOODMAN: He wanted to give it back.
DANIEL MASON: He wanted to give it back, but he is still being charged under the Official Secrets Act, with receiving the document.
AMY GOODMAN: His assistant. Tony Clarke’s assistant.
DANIEL MASON: Yes. Tony Clarke has not been charged with anything, although he received the document in the same manner Leo O’Connor did. And Peter Kilfoyle has not been charged with anything, but we have subsequently learned that he passed it to John Latham in the United States, in the hope of prejudicing the outcome of the election. So there’s the real hypocrisy between who has been charged with what. The two civil servants are feeling the full force of the law; the two Labour M.P.s, on the other hand, have had no communication from the government at all, as far as we’re aware.
AMY GOODMAN: And Kilfoyle, the Labour M.P., said that Colin Powell was at this meeting where Bush made this suggestion to Tony Blair?
DANIEL MASON: That’s correct. He said Colin Powell was also talking Mr. Bush — also helped to talk Mr. Bush out of his plan. But as far as we’re aware, there has been very limited questioning of Mr. Powell about this in the States. The only comments he has made was to say he doesn’t remember the meeting, he can’t be expected to remember every meeting. We find this hard to believe, bearing in mind the context of the discussion.
AMY GOODMAN: What has been the response in Britain?
DANIEL MASON: In Britain, the story hasn’t run in the mainstream media. The only real coverage since the Mirror story was earlier this year in early January. Peter Kilfoyle went public on the eve of the committal hearings for Leo O’Connor and David Keogh.
AMY GOODMAN: Is that another word — in U.S. we say "arraignment"?
DANIEL MASON: Yes, the same thing. It went to trial, and they both pled not guilty. On the eve of that, Peter Kilfoyle went public in the Guardian and said, "I’ve seen the document. I agree with the Mirror story." He backed it up, and he said, "I’ve leaked it. I passed it to people in the United States. Come and arrest me. Come and charge me." And to date, there has been nothing since. What we don’t know is why Mr. Kilfoyle didn’t leak it in the U.K. or why he didn’t pass it to somebody who would be more inclined to leak it.
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Gunn is a woman who worked in national intelligence in Britain.
DANIEL MASON: Katherine Gunn.
AMY GOODMAN: Katherine Gunn. And she ultimately was acquitted, but she was also charged. This was around information that the U.S. government was spying on the U.N. Security Council members. Is this a way that the British government cracks down, by arresting one or two people? In the end, they’re ultimately freed under the British Official Secrets Act, but it is very frightening. It has a chilling effect on all.
DANIEL MASON: It must be absolutely terrifying, because under the Official Secrets Act, if the document is considered to be a threat to national security, you don’t have a public interest defense. And the Katherine Gunn case collapsed, because essentially the government realized if it went to court, if they had been bugging the United Nations as Katherine Gunn alleged, that would come out in court, so it was easier for them to just drop the prosecution than to follow it through.
With David Keogh and Leo O’Connor, it’s a bit of mystery as to why they have taken it to this stage. The committal arraignment hearings have happened, and they are due back in court in April this year, where the trial is to take place. So we don’t know why the government is so keen to essentially keep this issue alive. There’s been suggestions that because Mr. Blair apparently talked Mr. Bush out of the plan, it would reflect quite well on Mr. Blair. I find that quite difficult to believe, because the associated publicity around it can only draw attention to the relationship between the two men. And in the U.K., President Bush is not the most popular character, and Prime Minister Blair’s association with him is one of the biggest problems Mr. Blair has got at the moment.
AMY GOODMAN: And you are willing to go to jail if you got somehow hold of this memo?
DANIEL MASON: We would hope that if we got hold of the memo, we’ve got a list of 400 bloggers who have signed up to a list and said they will publish if the memo surfaces. Alongside that, if that happens, it would instantly be spread around the internet so fast, it would be impossible really to pin down one particular person to prosecute. The theory is if enough people publish it, then the Official Secrets Act is useless, because where do they start?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Daniel Mason, I want to thank you very much for being with us, co-founder of Blair Watch, a British blog tracking the story of the Downing Street memo. If people want to see your blog, what information you have on the memo, where can they go online?
DANIEL MASON: It’s www.BlairWatch.co.uk.
AMY GOODMAN: And of course we will post it at DemocracyNow.org and all other relevant information.