British government accused of trying to gag reports saying Bush talked of bombing al-Jazeera

An opposition legislator accused the British government Thursday of using the law to gag the press from reporting claims that U.S. President George W. Bush wanted to bomb the headquarters of the Arabic TV service al-Jazeera.

Reports said Attorney General Lord Goldsmith warned editors they could face prosecution under the Official Secrets Act for disclosing the contents of a document that has been described as a transcript of discussions between Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Cabinet Office civil servant David Keogh and Leo O'Connor, who formerly worked for a British lawmaker, face a court appearance next week on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act. In another development Thursday, British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram told the House of Commons that British forces have killed an estimated 261 insurgents and wounded 141 in fighting in Iraq since June 2003.

The Daily Mirror newspaper this week claimed that the document was a transcript of a meeting in April 2004 between Bush and Blair in which Bush spoke of attacking al-Jazeera's headquarters in Doha, Qatar. The newspaper, which cited unidentified sources, said Blair argued against an attack. The newspaper quoted its sources as disagreeing about whether Bush's alleged comment was a joke or was meant seriously. Blair's office said it never commented on secret documents. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he would not comment on "something so outlandish and inconceivable."

Liberal Democrat David Heath, speaking in Britain's House of Commons, said 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." Geoff Hoon, the leader of the House, responded that the attorney general "has a legal responsibility."

"It is done with great restraint. It is done only in certain limited circumstances. But it is an important power that needs exercising from time to time," Hoon said. Ingram's comment about insurgent casualty figures in Iraq came in one of two written replies he gave to questions from legislators in the House of Commons.

He said the casualty estimate was loosely based on the impressions of British troops who usually do not take the risk of searching the scenes of fighting and often report that rebels quickly remove their casualties from such areas. Ingram also said 10 British soldiers were under investigation for possible prosecution for the killing or wounding of Iraqi nationals in Iraq, but that no charges have been filed in the cases yet.

Also Thursday, an inquiry concluded that two British soldiers who died in Iraq on March 25, 2003, were killed by friendly fire. Cpl. Stephen Allbutt, 35, and trooper David Clarke, 19, died near Basra when their tank was fired on by another British one, said the Board of Inquiry, which was set up to investigate the attack, the AP reports.

It said several factors contributed to the deaths and recommended better training practices. The board said the boundaries between tanks and arcs of fire should have been better known, and there needed to be a more coordinated approach.


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