“On November 13, a hectic day when Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance and there were celebrations in the streets of the city, a U.S. missile obliterated Al-Jazeera’s office,” Suskind wrote in the book, which was released yesterday. “Inside the CIA and White House there was satisfaction that a message had been sent to Al-Jazeera.”
Questioned yesterday by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, Suskind said: “My sources are clear that that was done on purpose, precisely to send a message to Al-Jazeera, and essentially a message was sent. ...There was great anger at Al-Jazeera at this point.” Suskind said U.S. officials considered Al-Jazeera a mouthpiece for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Asked who made the decision to target the station, Suskind told Blitzer that because of “sourcing issues” he couldn’t say. “You don’t put everything you know in a book like this. But I’ll tell you emphatically it was a deliberate act by the U.S.” CNN reported last night that Pentagon officials speaking on background denied that the attack was intentional and said it was the first that they had heard about it.
“If true, such targeting would seriously threaten the ability of all journalists to cover conflict,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper.
The November 2001 air strike, carried out with two 500-pound bombs, destroyed the Al-Jazeera bureau, which had been evacuated hours earlier. The Pentagon asserted then, without providing additional detail, that the office was a “known al-Qaeda facility” and that the U.S. military did not know that the space was being used by Al-Jazeera.
U.S. officials have said little about the Kabul attack since their initial statement. Gen. Richard B. Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated in a February 2002 letter to CPJ that the military believed the building to be an al-Qaeda facility, but he offered no evidence or other detail.
The Kabul strike was the first of two significant cases in which Al-Jazeera offices in the Middle East were struck by U.S. fire. On April 8, 2003 a U.S. air-to-surface missile exploded outside the two-story villa that housed Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau, killing reporter Tareq Ayyoub, who had been on the roof adjusting a pre-positioned camera during fierce fighting in the area. The U.S. military claimed Ayyoub was killed in crossfire when U.S. forces were responding to hostile fire coming from the building, an assertion denied by Al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera has said it provided the Pentagon with the bureau’s coordinates in advance of the war. U.S. officials have not responded to calls from CPJ to investigate and explain the strike.
“The Pentagon’s repeated failure to publicly account for its actions in these bombings has understandably fueled suspicion that they may have been intentional, in violation of international humanitarian law,” Cooper said. “This should be of concern to journalists everywhere. It’s time for the United States to credibly explain the circumstances behind both incidents.”
Accusations that Al-Jazeera was deliberately targeted by the United States gained currency last year when the London-based Daily Mirror reported that U.S. President George W. Bush raised the idea of bombing Al-Jazeera’s offices in an April 2004 meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair reportedly advised against it, saying such action would provoke a global backlash.
The paper’s unnamed sources disagreed on the nature of Bush’s alleged suggestion. One source dismissed the remark as "humorous, not serious," while another claimed the president was "deadly serious." The Washington Post quoted a senior U.S. diplomat as saying the report "sounds like one of the president’s one-liners that is meant as a joke." The White House said only that it was "not interested in dignifying something so outlandish and inconceivable with a response."