The British government denied on Tuesday that a leaked memorandum at the heart of a contentious trial contained a threat by US President George W. Bush to bomb al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language television station.
The government had previously withheld substantive comment on a report in the Daily Mirror last year that Bush made the threat in a private conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the White House in April 2004 -- a time when US commanders in Iraq were publicly critical of al-Jazeera's coverage of the war in Iraq.
The Daily Mirror reported that Blair had dissuaded Bush from bombing the Qatar headquarters of al-Jazeera. The White House called the report outlandish. The British government warned other newspapers that they would be breaking the law if they also published details of the leaked memo.
The British government issued the denial a week before a British civil servant and a researcher employed by a parliamentary lawmaker are to face trial under the Official Secrets Act on charges relating to the leaked memo.
David Keogh, 48, a former government communications officer, is accused of passing to Leo O'Connor, 42, the former researcher, a memo detailing the April 2004 conversation. The two men appeared in court on Jan. 10 and were ordered to return to face trial on Jan. 24.
In the meantime, though, al-Jazeera has filed a request under Britain's Freedom of Information Act demanding to see the memo.
Blair's office said it would respond to al-Jazeera's request within four weeks.
While unusual for a case involving judicial proceedings, a spokesman for Blair, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with government rules, went into some detail about the government's likely response, saying it would reply "properly" to al-Jazeera's request.
But the spokesman said the government would not depart from its practice of maintaining the confidentiality of conversations with Bush or "any other world leader."
"But what we can confirm is that the memo doesn't refer to bombing the al-Jazeera television station in Qatar," the spokesman said.
The spokesman was asked if the memo referred to another al-Jazeera bureau, "I'm not aware of any suggestion of bombing any al-Jazeera television station," he said. He refused to say what the memo did, in fact, say.