These are days of troubled sleep. As in a dream, you walk familiar streets, living out your ordinary life — going to work, having love affairs, watching sports, getting the car fixed, worrying about bills, fighting a toothache, taking kids to school, listening to music — and everything seems as it was before, as it always was; you seem to be what you always were: a free person in a free country. Then some discordant noise reaches your mind; you stir, you open your eyes, and you remember: that’s not how it is here anymore.
For citizens in the world’s two “leading democracies,” the United States and Britain, these rude awakenings come at regular intervals now, piercing through the incessant roar of static from the media engines of sell and spin. A story catches your eye — usually something buried beneath the “big news” of the day — and once again you’re tumbled from your private concerns into a dreadful realization of where history has taken you: into a strange hybrid world of unfree freedom, where you can say what you want, do what you want — unless those in power arbitrarily decide that you can’t. In 99 cases out of 100, they’ll leave you alone (as long as you’re white and look non-threatening; if not, that ratio drops considerably). But this liberty is illusory; it no longer has a physical reality, or even a statutory one. It is now a “gift” of the authorities, one which they can bestow — or revoke — according to their own, ever-shifting needs and desires.
The idea of arbitrary power beyond all check of law or outside supervision is the sum total of the so-called “Unitary Executive” theory of the Bush Administration, which has put this radical and barbaric idea into practice. It is also undergirds the “crown prerogative” of British governance, where the ancient immunities of the sovereign (“The king can do no wrong” — or as that proto-unitary executive Richard Nixon once put it: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal”) have “devolved” upon the prime minister as head of the government. In neither of these endlessly self-celebrating democracies is the consent of the governed or the rule of law the basis for the exercise of power. Otherwise, the leaders of these countries — the dual lame ducks Bush and Blair — could not have launched an illegal war or maintained this criminal enterprise year after blood-soaked year. And many of their exercises of arbitrary power have been in aid of masking the true nature of this war.
Thus we come to the latest shaking of our troubled sleep. While the media world gaped and gabbed about Tony Blair’s long-belated announcement of his long-overdue retirement yesterday, a more revealing story was buried beneath the fold or in the back pages — except in the dogged Independent, which put it on the front page:
Tony Blair’s ill-fated war with Iraq claimed two more victims yesterday when a civil servant and an MP’s researcher were convicted of disclosing details of a secret conversation between the Prime Minister and President George Bush. Last night, MPs, lawyers and civil rights groups described the prosecution as a “farce” and accused the Government of misusing the Official Secrets Act to cover up political embarrassment over the war.
David Keogh, 50, a Cabinet Office communications officer, was today jailed for six months. He passed on an “extremely sensitive memo” to Leo O’Connor, 44, a political researcher who worked for an anti-war Labour MP, Anthony Clarke. O’Connor was today sentenced to three months in jail after an Old Bailey jury found them guilty yesterday of breaching Britain’s secrecy laws.
Their trial was carried out under extraordinary secrecy, clamped down even tighter than Britain’s continuing series of terror plot trials. The judge wouldn’t even allow the press to report Keogh’s response “when he was asked in open court what preyed on his mind when he first saw the document,” the Guardian reports. What’s more, the British press were also forbidden from referring to stories they had previously published about the memo when it first came to light and reports of its contents were being freely discussed. The attorney general — Blair’s old friend Peter Goldsmith, the same legal eagle who infamously reversed his stand on the illegality of the Iraq invasion after a talking to from the Beltway boys, and who most recently quashed a years-long probe into a sex-car-cash bribery scheme between the Saudi royals and the UK’s top arms merchant — draped a retroactive veil of secrecy over the case — much like the one the Bush gang has used on fired FBI truth-teller Sibel Edmonds after she threatened to expose a nest of high-level treason and corruption. The only thing the British press could tell the British people about the trial yesterday — beyond the sentences handed down — was the reaction Keogh had given to the police when he was first arrested in 2005. He told them that what he had seen in the memo convinced him that “Bush was a madman.”
But what was this document whose very existence posed such a dire threat to the life of the nation that its contents could not even be hinted at in public? It was a four-page record of a White House meeting between George W. Bush and Tony Blair on April 16, 2004. It is known in the trade as the “al-Jazeera Bombing Memo” because in those early news reports — after Keogh had leaked the document in May 2004 to O’Connor, in the hopes that it would be brought before the people’s representatives in Parliament — at least one part of its contents became widely known; to wit, that Bush had proposed to Blair that they bomb the headquarters of the independent Arabic news agency al-Jazeera in Qatar, as well as agency offices elsewhere.
The context of this criminal proposal is important. In April 2004, the grand Babylonian Conquest was turning into a nightmare. The tortures at Abu Ghraib had just been exposed. (Outrages which, as we now know, were just the barest tip of a massive iceberg: the vast gulag of secret prisons, “disappeared” captives, and “strenuous interrogation techniques” specifically approved by Bush and Rumsfeld.) But beyond that scandal — which was being successfully fobbed off with the “bad apple” defense, and would never be in an issue in the coming presidential election — there was also, more glaringly, the ongoing bloodfest in Fallujah: the Guernica of the Iraq War.
The attack was launched in retaliation for the killing of four American mercenaries from the politically-wired firm of Blackwater on March 31, 2004 — another PR hit for the “Mission Accomplished” team in the White House. Fallujah — a once quiet city whose citizens had rebelled against Saddam Hussein — had been turned into a hotbed of unrest over the course of the previous year by a heavy-handed American occupation, which included several civilian deaths after occupation troops fired into crowds exercising what they believed was their liberated right to protest. Anger and insurgency took hold in the city, leading to the “Black Hawk Down” style despoliation of the dead mercenaries a year later.
Against the advice of military commanders on the scene, Bush ordered the “pacification” of the city a few days later. But the L’il Commander’s attack turned into yet another PR nightmare, spreading death and destruction through civilian areas, causing hundreds of deaths, launching airstrikes into residential areas, closing the city’s main hospitals while thousands were suffering — and failing to dislodge the insurgents who were the ostensible target of the operation. (There were two other main targets, of course: the American people, who were meant to be seduced by the man-musk of the War Leader, and the Iraqi people, who were meant to be terrorized into submission by the shock-and-awe of Fallujah’s decimation.)
In addition to the lack of progress on the battleground, Bush was beset by the presence of al-Jazeera correspondents in the city. The agency — headquartered in Qatar, a staunch U.S. ally — was a rare independent voice in the Arab world, reporting from all sides and offering a platform for all sides, including Israeli and American officials. It was, in fact, the very kind of thing that Bush claimed he wanted to instill in the Middle East through his invasion of Iraq. But of course, this was just another lie. Al-Jazeera’s independence proved inconvenient for the Bushists, who in both Iraq and Afghanistan had sought to impose the greatest degree of message control (and “psy-ops” spin) ever seen in an American war. For both the Bushists and the Blairites, truth was not the first casualty of war; it was a deadly enemy — an enemy combatant, in fact, to be rendered, disappeared, tortured, killed, like any other gulag captive.
So it was no surprise at all that Bush and Blair would be discussing al-Jazeera during that fretful confab in April 2004. Nor is it any surprise that Bush’s answer to the “problem” of an independent Arab news agency would be to kill the ragheads where they stand. He had already demonstrated that wanton violence and mass murder was his preferred option for dealing with problems in the Middle East.
The contents of the controversial memo were actually well-known after it came to light — and before Blair’s buddy Goldsmith lowered the boom. The Daily Mirror, for example, had this report in November 2005:
President Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a “Top Secret” No 10 memo reveals. But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash…The attack would have led to a massacre of innocents on the territory of a key ally, enraged the Middle East and almost certainly have sparked bloody retaliation.
A source said last night: “The memo is explosive and hugely damaging to Bush. He made clear he wanted to bomb al-Jazeera in Qatar and elsewhere. Blair replied that would cause a big problem. There’s no doubt what Bush wanted to do — and no doubt Blair didn’t want him to do it.”
A Government official suggested that the Bush threat had been “humorous, not serious”. But another source declared: “Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men.”
Al-Jazeera’s HQ is in the business district of Qatar’s capital, Doha. Its single-storey buildings would have made an easy target for bombers. As it is sited away from residential areas, and more than 10 miles from the US’s desert base in Qatar, there would have been no danger of “collateral damage”.
Dozens of al-Jazeera staff at the HQ are not, as many believe, Islamic fanatics. Instead, most are respected and highly trained technicians and journalists. To have wiped them out would have been equivalent to bombing the BBC in London and the most spectacular foreign policy disaster since the Iraq War itself.
The No 10 memo now raises fresh doubts over US claims that previous attacks against al-Jazeera staff were military errors. In 2001 the station’s Kabul office was knocked out by two “smart” bombs. In 2003, al-Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed in a US missile strike on the station’s Baghdad centre. The memo, which also included details of troop deployments, turned up in May last year at the Northampton constituency office of then Labour MP Tony Clarke.
This is the kind of thing that filled British papers for weeks. But now, in the brave new world of unfree freedom that Bush and Blair have bestowed upon their subjects, Britons can no longer mention any of this in public. Indeed, the judge in the Keogh case reinforced Goldsmith’s earlier ban with a new gag order, decreeing “that allegations already in the public domain could not be repeated if there was any suggestion they related to the contents of the document,” the Guardian reports. Anyone who does so can be jailed for contempt. Yes, jailed for repeating in public what has already been published.
During the trial, Blair’s top foreign policy wonk, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, offered this notable justification for jailing faithful government servants whose consciences had been shocked into action by the discovery of a plot for mass murder by the “leader of the free world”:
In evidence at the trial, Sir Nigel Sheinwald…said private talks between world leaders must remain confidential however illegal or morally abhorrent aspects of their discussions might be.