Taking Bush to court

If you thought the Bush administration’s ongoing clash with the press couldn’t get much worse, think again. While journalists at domestic news outlets such as the New York Times can look out their windows and watch protestors call for their prosecution, President Bush is facing legal action as well. He’s being sued – personally – ...

607933_ayyoub5.jpg
607933_ayyoub5.jpg

If you thought the Bush administration's ongoing clash with the press couldn't get much worse, think again. While journalists at domestic news outlets such as the New York Times can look out their windows and watch protestors call for their prosecution, President Bush is facing legal action as well. He's being sued - personally - for $30 million for the April 2003 bombing death of Jordanian Al Jazeera correspondent Tariq Ayyoub.  

Ayyoub's family is filing the suit in an American court to seek damages for a U.S. bombing raid that took place in Baghdad in the days leading up to the fall of the capital that April. Why sue President Bush personally? Ayyoub's family claims that administration officials wanted to send Al Jazeera a message and so premeditated the attack on the bureau and Tariq.

The problem is, much of the family's case rests upon the 2005 revelation of the now infamous "No. 10" memo, in which it was alleged that President Bush talked of bombing the network's headquarters in Doha. But the memo has never been made public, and it's hard to prove premeditation from a document based on a conversation that supposedly took place in April 2004, a year after Ayyoub's death.   

If you thought the Bush administration’s ongoing clash with the press couldn’t get much worse, think again. While journalists at domestic news outlets such as the New York Times can look out their windows and watch protestors call for their prosecution, President Bush is facing legal action as well. He’s being sued – personally – for $30 million for the April 2003 bombing death of Jordanian Al Jazeera correspondent Tariq Ayyoub.  

Ayyoub’s family is filing the suit in an American court to seek damages for a U.S. bombing raid that took place in Baghdad in the days leading up to the fall of the capital that April. Why sue President Bush personally? Ayyoub’s family claims that administration officials wanted to send Al Jazeera a message and so premeditated the attack on the bureau and Tariq.

The problem is, much of the family’s case rests upon the 2005 revelation of the now infamous “No. 10” memo, in which it was alleged that President Bush talked of bombing the network’s headquarters in Doha. But the memo has never been made public, and it’s hard to prove premeditation from a document based on a conversation that supposedly took place in April 2004, a year after Ayyoub’s death.   

It’s no secret that the administration has more than a little contempt for Al Jazeera. As Hugh Miles relays in the current issue of FP, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has called its coverage “vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable.” But it’s highly improbable that the lawsuit is much more than a symbolic gesture. Even though Bush will likely not have to answer these charges personally, he could send a signal of concern for the safety of journalists in wartime: Open an investigation into Ayyoub’s death. Not just an opaque, eyes-only investigation kept away from the rest of the press, but a serious, comprehensive, report that lays out what happened on the night of April 8, 2003. Post the findings on the Pentagon’s Web site. Publish it in Arabic. 

After all, that’s where the Ayyoub case really stands out. Even though the Iraq war has been the deadliest for journalists since World War II, his death is one of the few that the Pentagon has never even bothered to investigate. Given the No. 10 memo, given the bombings of Al Jazeera’s bureau in Kabul in 2001, and given the overall image of the administration’s manipulation of the press in the region, could it really hurt to look into the circumstances of one man’s death? There is, of course, the possibility that in opening a case, the government dignifies such accusations with a response and invites anyone to render serious accusations at high-level officials. But in choosing not to look into Ayyoub’s death, the administration has already created an exception that demands attention.

Update (7/13/2006): I spoke yesterday with Hamdi Rifai, the attorney for Tariq Ayyoub’s widow, Dina. He wanted to reiterate to our readers that the lawsuit is naming President Bush in his full capacity as president and commander in chief of the U.S. military. He also added that lawsuits such as this one are aimed at providing “some degree of accountability” on the part of the administration. We’ll continue to watch this case, and others like it, to see where they lead.  

Kate Palmer is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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