What Happened at Al-Jazeera’s Kabul Bureau?

In his new book, Ron Suskind alleges that the U.S. military intentionally targeted al-Jazeera. So why isn't the press paying attention?

In November, 2001, at the outset of its military campaign to oust the Taliban and hunt down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, a U.S. missile leveled the Kabul bureau of the al-Jazeera television network. In his new book, The One Percent Doctrine, Ron Suskind alleges that al-Jazeera was intentionally targeted.

So why isn’t the press paying attention?

If Suskind was somewhat vague about the incident in his book (he writes that “inside the CIA and White House there was satisfaction that a message had been sent to al-Jazeera” on the day of the bombing), he cleared up any ambiguity during an appearance this week on CNN’s Situation Room. “My sources are clear that that was done on purpose, precisely to send a message to al-Jazeera, and essentially a message was sent,” he told Wolf Blitzer. “… There was great anger at al-Jazeera at this point.” He added, “I’ll tell you emphatically it was a deliberate act by the U.S.”

If Suskind’s sources are right, this would contradict the military’s official explanation of the strike — that the bureau was targeted because it was a “known al Qaeda facility” — and make it seem very much like an act of aggression intended purely to intimidate the network, which has long been regarded by Donald Rumsfeld, among many other government officials, as al Qaeda’s unofficial propaganda arm.

If Suskind is correct, it raises questions about other military incidents involving al-Jazeera. On April 8, 2003, al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau was hit by a U.S. missile, killing Tarek Ayoub, one of its correspondents, who was preparing to broadcast live at the time. The U.S. military also hit both Abu Dhabi TV’s Baghdad offices and the Palestine Hotel, the de facto headquarters of the international press corps, killing two journalists and wounding three others. These incidents, according to the military, were accidental and occurred in the chaos of battle. An official military investigation into the shelling of the Palestine, released in August 2003, concluded that “a company was under heavy enemy attack. The company had positive intelligence that they were under direct observation from an enemy hunter/killer team. The activities on the balcony of the Palestine Hotel were consistent with that of an enemy combatant. They fired a single round in self-defense in full accordance with the Rules of Engagement.” The Committee to Protect Journalists, which carried out its own investigation, disagreed in a 2003 report: “There is simply no evidence to support the official U.S. position that U.S. forces were returning hostile fire from the Palestine Hotel. It conflicts with eyewitness testimonies of numerous journalists in the hotel.” The military, for its part, has yet to officially investigate the circumstances of the missile strike on al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau.

Suskind’s revelation would also add a chilling context to a five-page memo, leaked to the Daily Mirror last fall, that details a 2004 meeting between President Bush and Tony Blair. During the meeting, Bush allegedly spoke of bombing al-Jazeera’s Qatar headquarters — in jest, we’re told — while Blair argued against it, fearing it might cause blowback (perhaps from members of the media who tend to react poorly to news that they are being treated as military targets).

It’s difficult to think that our government would ever consider the targeting of journalists a legitimate military action. Perhaps that’s why reporters have tread carefully on allegations of this kind, serious as they are, and why Suskind’s scoop has received scant attention beyond ruminations on the usual blogs and the obligatory press release from the Committee to Protect Journalists. But maybe it’s time the press suspends its disbelief (though not its skepticism) and reconsiders its rules of engagement.

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Dan Schulman was an assistant editor at CJR.