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Dead Messengers: But What About Al-Jazeera?

Dead Messengers: How the U.S. Military Threatens Journalists (Part 4 Of 4)
But What About Al-Jazeera?

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Investigation
Tuesday 08 March 2005

See also…
Investigation (2): Hearing What Eason Jordan Said
Investigation (2):Army Failed to Probe Its Attack on Palestine Hotel
Investigation (3): Targeting Media The American Way
Exhibit A | Reporters Without Borders: Two Murders and a Lie

" The suggestion that somehow the United States would have deliberately attacked journalists is obviously totally false. After all of the effort we went to make the battlefield, so to speak, available to journalists, to embed hundreds of journalists, both Americans and foreigners, with our forces, to be right there on the front lines where they could report in real time what's going on, has been, I think, a very important and positive contribution. But the suggestion that having done that, we would somehow then encourage deliberate attacks on journalists makes no sense at all. You'd have to be an idiot to believe that. "
-- Vice-President Dick Cheney, speaking on April 9, 2003, to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Nik Gowing is no idiot. A top BBC news anchor and one of Britain's most respected journalists, the white-haired Gowing has warned repeatedly of precisely what Mr. Cheney did not want American newspapers even to consider.

In a talk at the London School of Economics in May 2004, Gowing summed up his case. Whatever the risks, he argued, reporters in Iraq or elsewhere have every right to cover wars and peacekeeping operations, and to do so freely and independently without having to embed themselves with U.S. or British forces. But, he said,

"the trouble is that a lot of the military - particularly the American and the Israeli military - do not want us there. And they make it very uncomfortable for us to work. And I think that this - and I am giving you headlines here - is leading to security forces in some instances feeling it is legitimate to target us with deadly force and with impunity."

Where the CNN's Eason Jordan offered confused speculation, Gowing had spent over two years amassing the evidence, which refutes both Cheney and many of his anti-war critics.

Beyond Speculation

Early in 2002, the BBC sent Gowing to Washington on a mission of pressing, even personal, concern. On November 13, 2001 - the day before Northern Alliance forces captured Kabul - the U.S. military had bombed the BBC's broadcasting facilities there. More intriguing to the journalist in Gowing, the U.S. also destroyed the Kabul bureau of the Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, which the Bush administration had publicly branded as an al-Qaida propaganda outlet for broadcasting video tapes from Osama bin Laden.

Gowing's question for Pentagon officials was obvious: Why did you bomb al-Jazeera?

The answer came from Rear Admiral Craig Quigley, who served at the time as deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. On the day the bombs dropped, he told an al-Jazeera journalist that it was all a "mistake" because "a weapon went awry." Later, he told Gowing a different, far scarier story, which the British journalist described at length in The Guardian on April 8, 2002.

The compound occupied by al-Jazeera "had been, and was at the time, a facility used by al-Qaida," said Quigley. The admiral made no distinction between al-Qaida and the Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan.

The "al-Qaida activity" had been "multiple purpose," Quigley added. That gave the compound "military significance," which made it a "legitimate target."

What made a potential target militarily significant?

Quigley refused to say. Nor would he or anyone else at the Pentagon explain how their secret definition of "military significance" might affect the media's increasing use of low-cost, highly portable uplink technology.

"Nobody in any of the coalition intelligence systems was paying any attention to where those things [broadcast uplinks] were, to the best of my knowledge," said Quigley. "I do not know why they would."

Journalists had been uplinking to al-Jazeera's satellite from the same location in Kabul for 20 months. They had marked the compound clearly and told the Pentagon they were there. And, on at least one occasion, U.S. intelligence admitted knowing the content of an Osama bin Laden tape that the journalists in Kabul had beamed back to their headquarters in Qatar. But, Quigley insisted, the military - or at least those who did the targeting - never knew the compound was al-Jazeera's.

"It was not relevant for us to know that it was a broadcast facility," said Quigley. The military was only concerned about identifying targets "directly relevant to prosecuting the war."

"So," asked Gowing, "if they [news broadcasters] are uplinking [by satellite], essentially that would not be relevant in your calculations. If they happen to be there: tough! They get hit?"

"Yeah - that is pretty much it," the admiral replied. "If there is a legitimate target next door to a broadcast facility, that would not slow us down one bit from taking out the legitimate target next door."

"Not one bit," Quigley emphasized again.

"We take as much prudence and diligence as we can in our targeting process. The coincidental co-location of news representatives is not going to be a deciding criterion as to whether or not we engage a target."

Gowing heard the message. "The Pentagon," he wrote, "is warning news organizations: stay out or assume your technology will make you one of our targets."

In the Loop

When the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists raised concerns about the bombing of al-Jazeera's Kabul compound, General Tommy Franks - the commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan - gave the same explanation. Al-Jazeera's compound "had been monitored for a significant time," he wrote, "and had repeatedly been the location of significant al-Qaida activity."

Franks also alleged that "several al-Qaida terrorists, including the number three individual in the organization, Mohammed Ataf" had visited the al-Jazeera compound and were killed there.

Neither Franks nor Quigley offered any evidence to substantiate their claim, and the general got confused on at least one of his allegations. According to most accounts from the Pentagon, U.S. forces killed Mohammed Ataf a day or two later at an entirely different location.

But, what if al-Jazeera did talk to terrorists? To journalists, talking with "the enemy" produces scoops. To admirals and generals, it invites capital punishment.

Gowing offered an added reason that the Pentagon might have found al-Jazeera militarily significant. Because Kabul had such unreliable telephone service, the satellite channel's bureau chief, Tasir Allouni, carried a radio handset tuned to the Taliban frequency. This allowed him to monitor Taliban activities and maintain two-way contact with officials. But, wrote Gowing, it meant he was, "to a certain extent, inside their military communications loop."

"While journalistically understandable," wrote Gowing, "this, and regular contacts with senior Taliban, could be construed as activity of 'military significance.' "

Generals and Journalists

Much to his credit, Nik Gowing is no anti-American ideologue. He simply follows where facts take him, as he did when déjà vu happened all over again, but only worse.

On April 8, 2003, the same day a U.S. tank killed two journalists at the Palestine Hotel, an A-10 Warthog aircraft bombed al-Jazeera's office in Baghdad and killed its correspondent Tariq Ayyoub, who was standing on the office roof preparing to broadcast live.

Many anti-war critics instantly "knew" that the Americans had again targeted al-Jazeera, but Gowing was not convinced. After studying the evidence, he found that the U.S. military was most likely targeting a nearby electric generator used by Iraq's Minister of Information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, or 'Comical Ali.'

Significantly, al-Jazeera journalists eventually came to the same conclusion, reflecting the fact-based, case-by-case approach that professional journalists everywhere should embody.

The same open-mindedness appears in Jean-Paul Mari's investigation of the U.S. attack on the Palestine Hotel, where he concluded that the men who fired the shell did not know they were shooting at journalists. Their commander had never passed on the information that the hotel had become the center for international media coverage in Baghdad.

Contrast the good faith shown by Gowing, al-Jazeera, and Jean-Paul Mari with the Pentagon's self-righteous refusal to explain why they bombed al-Jazeera's Baghdad office, or even to apologize for killing Tariq Ayyoub, however unintended it might have been.

Admirals and generals see the world one way, journalists another, and the clash leads to the death of too many journalists who were trying to do their job. Unchecked, the clash could also end any meaningful democratic control of the American military. Nik Gowing has warned us. We would be foolish to ignore him.

As a matter of military doctrine, America's warriors seek to dominate every element of battle they can, including our perception of what they do and at what price. They firmly believe that the loss of public support at home led to their defeat in Vietnam, and they will not willingly let that happen again in Iraq or wherever else Mr. Bush sends them.

I understand their concern. But, mighty as they are, I suspect they face an impossible task. In a pluralistic world, journalists stand in their way, along with millions of ordinary people who have their own digital cameras, cellular phones, and Internet access. Eyes and ears are everywhere, and with videophones and lightweight satellite uplinks, journalists can spread freely gathered words and images around the globe in what Gowing loves to call real time.

Contrary to what Admiral Quigley and a dozen other Pentagon spokespeople proclaim, U.S. forces do consciously target media, as Gen. Wesley Clark did in 1999 when he sent cruise missiles to destroy Serbian TV in Belgrade.

Less dramatically, the desire to control popular perception similarly led U.S. forces to exclude journalists from large areas in the recent battle for Fallujah. The military even detained Abdel Kader al-Saadi, a correspondent for al-Arabiya satellite television, and held him for eleven days to keep him from covering the story. Most Americans never knew that. Nor did they ever get to see the stories al-Saadi, as a native of Fallujah, could have broadcast about the horrific devastation of his city.

The same yen for control also leads the Pentagon to urge journalists to embed themselves with the military, where they can film all the gung-ho and whiz-bang and tell their stories from an American point of view. The Pentagon also offers embedded journalists a great deal of protection, for which most show their gratitude in their reports.

But at the same time, American satellites, electronically equipped aircraft, and unpiloted drones systematically track any signals from the uplink technology of non-embedded journalists, the so-called 'unilaterals.' And - if we can believe Admiral Quigley - the military makes no effort to separate out the media uplinks from enemy communications. They could, but - according to Quigley - they don't.

The Pentagon could give the media guidelines of what will and will not cause the military to see them as "legitimate targets." But why bother when the Pentagon does not want the independent journalists out there seeing and hearing for themselves?

Yes, as the Pentagon sees it, non-embedded eyes and ears do have "military significance," and - unless Congress and the American people stop them - the military will increasingly see independent journalists as wholly "legitimate targets."


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u t.

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