A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Did Wikileaks Take Down Al Jazeera's Wadah Khanfar?

Al Jazeera Director General Wadah Khanfar announced yesterday that he was retiring after eight years at the head of the news agency. He said he'd been discussing this with the Chairman of the Board for some time, and that he'd decided to move on to new opportunities, etc. (here's his farewell message to his staff), but given the fact that Khanfar has turned up in the latest Wikileaks cable dump, it's not surprising that a lot of people and commentators, up to and including The New York Times, think this is Wikileaks related. One has to admit the timing doesn't suggest he just wanted to spend more time with his family.

If there is a smoking gun, it appears to be this cable from Embassy Doha, released by Wikileaks.  The Embassy PAO, the Public Affairs Officer, met with Khanfar to discuss a Defense Intelligence Agency report about Al Jazeera. Despite some of the reporting there and abroad, he did not meet with the DIA directly, at least not according to this cable. (The DIA representative is usually the Defense Attache.) Nothing in what I read suggests he agreed to "soften" Al Jazeera coverage, just enforce a greater control over what appears on their website.

Admittedly, in the conspiracy-prone Middle East, any whiff of the CIA or the DIA can be fatal, but it suggests a rather naive view of how reporting works. The other day somebody posted a link on Facebook to some publication trying to paint Juan Cole (Juan Cole!) as a "CIA consultant" because a CIA officer had said they had had meetings with him and other academics to give them alternative views. Believe me, in Washington, both academics and journalists interact with the intelligence community because we share the same space. Sometimes we know who they are; sometimes we don't. (I remember an Indian Embassy official taking me out for a lovely Indian lunch in my defense journalism days and quizzing me about the real range of Pakistani ship-to-ship missiles. I assured him that all I knew was what I read in Jane's, and asked him what his job was. "I'm just a visa officer," he assured me. "This is a hobby with me." As an aside, India's intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, has the greatest acronym of the English-speaking intel world, RAW.)

If you touch policy in DC, you'll touch the intel community. My old college roommate spent a career in the intel community. I've considered myself a personal friend of Miles Copeland, knew William Colby, and met Richard Helms a few times; I've known at least two former heads of Mossad and one former head of Israeli military intelligence and have met ‘Omar Suleiman of Egypt. I've spoken to the DIA and most of the war colleges but have never worked for our or any other government. Kermit Roosevelt once served as President of the Middle East Institute and a former US Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East serves on my Board of Advisory Editors today. The number of ex-CIA analysts ensconced in Middle East think tanks in DC is considerable, and they are not all on one side of the ideological fence. I won't even start to name them.

If this is what really forced the resignation of Khanfar, it's too damned bad.

Oh: Khanfar's replacement? Sheikh Ahmad bin Jasem Al Thani, head of Qatargas, a member of he Al Jazeera Board, and, as his name should make obvious, a member of Qatar's royal family. He certainly has no questionable political links.

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