This is an awfully weird story.
Yesterday Britain's Daily Mirror ran a story claiming that a top secret British government document records a conversation in Washington between President Bush and Tony Blair in April 2004 in which President Bush discussed bombing the headquarters of Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar.
The literal account of the conversation, says the Daily Mirror, has Bush suggesting an attack and Blair talking him out of it by noting the international backlash that would certainly ensure. The paper goes on to quote one anonymous source suggesting that Bush was joking, letting off steam, etc., and another saying that Bush was actually serious.
The added wrinkle to the story is that there does seem to be such a top secret document. We know that because two British civil servants have been charged under the UK Official Secrets act for leaking it. They were charged just last week.
In Wednesday's paper the Post follows up and reports a brush off quote the White House gave the AP. Said Scott McClellan, "We are not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response."
The Post also has this passage ...
In Washington, a senior diplomat said the Bush remark as recounted in the newspaper "sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke." But, the diplomat said, "it was foolish for someone to write it down, and now it will be a story for days."
The Times also picks up the story, but does less with it. Tomorrow's Guardian says that the UK government is now threatening to prosecute editors who reveal details of the memo. And the AP points out, among other things, that the British tabloids not infrequently get things wrong and that the Daily Mirror's last editor was forced to resign last year after the paper published what turne out to be faked pictures of alleged prisoner abuse by Britihs soldiers.
I'm really not quite sure what to make of this. Reading over the stories in the Daily Mirror, the Post, the BBC and other news outlets, there doesn't seem much question that there is a memo/transcript and that it does have Mr. Bush discussing bombing Al Jazeera HQ. What's unclear is whether he was serious or not. That of course makes all the difference in the world. And there's just no way to judge without seeing just what it said.
With my very limited sense of how George W. Bush operates in private, I think it does sound the like the sort of thing the president might joke about or say merely for effect, though I wouldn't say that shows him in such a great light either.
The only thing that strikes me as odd is that a diplomatic aide would memorialize this exchange between if it were merely a joking aside. Did the aide either think Bush was serious or perhaps found the discussion so disturbing that he chose to note it down?
The one thing that I think you can say with some surety is that this is yet one more example of the president's rapidly diminishing power, credibility and prestige. Six months, not to mention a year ago, I think there's little reason to believe a paper like the Post would have touched such a story and touch it in a way that entertains the possibility that President Bush actually had to be talked down by Tony Blair from bombing a news network whose editorial line he found too critical.