A senior executive of the Arabic news channel, al-Jazeera, is seeking an urgent meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair over a report that US President George W. Bush discussed bombing the satellite channel's headquarters in Qatar.
Wadah Khanfar, al-Jazeera's director general, is flying to Britain this weekend after newspaper reports that Bush made the comments during a face-to-face meeting with Blair at the White House on April 16 last year.
Bush's alleged comments about bombing al-Jazeera's building in Doha are reported to be contained in a note of the meeting. The UK attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, has warned newspapers they could be charged under the Official Secrets Act if they publish further material from the note. In the UK House of Commons yesterday, the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament (MP) David Heath said Lord Goldsmith had threatened editors with the Official Secrets Act to prevent government embarrassment rather than protect national security.
The attorney general's warning was "not on the grounds of national security but on the grounds of potential embarrassment to the prime minister or to any presidents he happens to have conversations with," he said.
Geoff Hoon, the leader of the Commons, replied that Lord Goldsmith had a "legal responsibility." He added: "It is done only in certain limited circumstances. But it is an important power that needs exercising from time to time."
The former defense minister Peter Kilfoyle last night tabled a Commons motion saying MPs were "appalled" by Bush's reported comments and Blair's apparent failure to restrain him by persuading him to moderate US tactics in Iraq. He said any note of the White House meeting should be published.
Ahmed el-Sheik, al-Jazeera's editor in chief, also called on the British government to release a memo on the meeting.
"Leaving things vague is terrifying," he said. "The British government has to explain -- was it a serious talk or was it a joke?"
The White House meeting, in April last year, took place at a time British officials and military commanders were appalled by US tactics in Iraq, particularly the assault on Fallujah. Pictures shown on al-Jazeera of the attack infuriated US generals, who accused the station of broadcasting anti-US propaganda. General Kimmet, the US commander, was reported to have demanded the removal of al-Jazeera journalists from Fallujah.
Al-Jazeera staff yesterday held protests demanding an investigation into the reports. At the station's HQ in Doha, Qatar, they held pictures of Sami al-Haj, a colleague who is an inmate at Guantanamo Bay, and Tarek Ayoub, an al-Jazeera journalist killed in April 2003 when a US missile hit his office in Baghdad. The US state department said the air strike was a mistake.
In November 2002 al-Jazeera's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, was destroyed by a US missile.