February 13, 2003
By Julian Borger in Washington and Brian Whitaker
The US knew about the latest Osama bin Laden tape five days before it was broadcast by the Qatar-based TV station al-Jazeera, according to a US intelligence source.
The Qatari government had been provided with a copy of the tape by the channel's management and passed it on to Washington, the source told the Guardian yesterday.
This may clear up the mystery of how Colin Powell, the US secretary of state, had access to a transcript of the tape long before staff at al-Jazeera even became aware of its existence. Early on Tuesday Mr Powell told a Senate panel that the tape provided evidence of Bin Laden's "partnership with Iraq" and would be shown by the Arab channel later that day.
Although al-Jazeera is owned by the government of Qatar, the station insists that it is editorially independent.
But according to the US source, al-Jazeera's management has to clear broadcasts of such controversial material with the authorities.
"They have to cooperate with the Qatari government. They have to give them a copy of tapes like that before they broadcast it, and we have good relations with the Qataris," said the intelligence source.
While the station is noted for broadcasting outspoken views and has become famous for a series of tapes purporting to come from Bin Laden, the government of Qatar has been quietly developing good relations with Washington.
The US switched its command centre for the expected war with Iraq to the tiny Gulf state after Saudi Arabia quibbled about letting American forces use its territory.
After previous Bin Laden broadcasts, Washington put pressure on Qatar to rein in al-Jazeera, saying the tapes were being used to whip up anti-Americanism and were possibly being used to send coded messages to al-Qaida cells.
The US source would not say whether the bilateral talks produced an agreement under which Washington would at least be given the opportunity to view Bin Laden tapes before they were broadcast.
News of the tape reached Washington by last Thursday. It is unclear whether the US influenced the timing of the broadcast and, if not, why it was delayed until Tuesday.
Yesterday, al-Jazeera staff appeared surprised at the arrangements for submitting Bin Laden tapes to the US via the Qatari government. "I'm not aware of this procedure at all," said a spokesman. "We got the tape at the station literally two hours before it was aired. A group of us huddled round and listened to it, and discussed what to do with it in the light of Mr Powell's statement."
Washington's possession of an advance copy may also explain why US officials were able to declare so soon after the broadcast that they believed it was indeed Bin Laden. German security sources said they also believed it was genuine.