Update: Jim Hanson at PJM reports on how Hussesin first came under military scrutiny
Pajamas Media has seen an email from a military source involved with the operation, confirming that Bilal Hussein and several others in the Fallujah area during 2004 had come to the attention of US forces tasked with information operations.
They noted ongoing reports coming out of Fallujah that did not match the reality they were aware of. Stories of children and civilians being killed would come out, but in areas where the Marines had not conducted operations. Many of these stories featured pictures and reporting from Hussein and quotes from the same two doctors at Fallujah Hospital. During this period of time Fallujah was controlled almost completely by al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents. Anyone doing anything was subject to their approval.
Bilal Hussein had free reign to be anywhere and was often taking pictures in the company of insurgents and terrorists. He and the other stringers who made up AP’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo team managed to capture assassinations as they happened. They were on site at bombings within seconds to capture the carnage almost as it happened.
This access and the number of false reports of civilian deaths led the information operations staff to take note. They began monitoring Hussein more closely for two reasons: one they were tasked with countering or debunking false claims of civilian casualties and atrocities, second because Hussein’s very tight relations with the insurgents could be used against the Marines themselves.
This team was comprised of US Public Affairs and Intelligence personnel as well as a Special Ops unit to exploit any actionable intelligence gathered. It was an extraordinary measure and only the fact that Hussein and several others were acting as de facto terror press agents prompted it.
It’s Sunday morning in Iraq. Today is the day our military officials plan to submit evidence against Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein to the Iraqi judiciary system. You’ll recall that the military stated last month that it “possesses convincing and irrefutable evidence that Bilal Hussein is a threat to security and stability as a link to insurgent activity.”
Look for the Associated Press to launch again into full-court Advocacy Press mode–exercising its global reach to disseminate public relations spin packaged as objective news coverage. What you will not read in the AP’s coverage of itself (or in the coverage by its supporters) is any honest, in-depth acknowledgment of the enormous perils of Western media outlets relying on dubious foreign stringers. The AP maintains that the “real reason for Mr. Hussein’s detention and incarceration for 19 months without charges is that he produced images of conflict in Anbar Province which the military did not want the citizens of Iraq and the United States to see.”
In the AP’s eyes, no stringer can do wrong. Only the American military participates in conspiracies to kill and cover up. And anyone who allows for the possibility that a journalist might possibly be in cahoots with our enemies is an “obsessive” enemy of the free press.
But contrary to the AP’s paranoid attacks on its critics, the stringer problem is not merely a concern of military officials and right-wing bloggers. Neil Munro’s April 2006 National Journal investigation exposed case after case of suspected staged, faked, or questionable war photos. One of the photographers Munro zeroed in on was Bilal Hussein–and note, this was published before news of his detention broke. It’s worth revisiting Munro’s reporting last year as the proceedings open today:
Journalists and photo editors face still another challenge when accounts of a single incident differ dramatically, making it hard to place photographs in their proper context. This problem is especially acute in Iraq. The U.S. military will give one version of events; local Iraqis will give another, very different story. Sometimes, residents — even doctors and hospital officials — sympathize with, or fear, the insurgents, and they simply lie or exaggerate to make Iraqi forces or U.S. troops look bad. Other times, local eyewitnesses give an account of an incident that is more accurate than the official government or military story.
The problem sharpens when no Western reporter is on the scene, but a photographer, usually an Iraqi stringer, is. Photo editors, or even local Western bureau chiefs, have trouble judging the veracity of the images that come from such an event. Last October, for example, The Washington Post printed a striking image of four caskets, purportedly containing dead women and children, and a line of mourning men on a flat desert plain outside the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad. The photo, provided by the Associated Press, accompanied an article that began this way:
“A U.S. fighter jet bombed a crowd gathered around a burned Humvee on the edge of a provincial capital in western Iraq, killing 25 people, including 18 children, hospital officials and family members said Monday. The military said the Sunday raid targeted insurgents planting a bomb for new attacks.
“In all, residents and hospital workers said, 39 civilians and at least 13 armed insurgents were killed in a day of U.S. airstrikes in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, a Sunni Arab region with a heavy insurgent presence.
“The U.S. military said it killed a total of 70 insurgents in Sunday’s airstrikes and, in a statement, said it knew of no civilian deaths.”
The story, datelined Baghdad, pointed to the sharply divergent accounts of the incident, and it quoted both Ramadi residents and hospital officials as saying that many civilians had been killed. The photograph, shot by an Iraqi stringer for AP, presumably was a scene of a funeral for some of the dead civilians.
In December, The Post did a follow-up story about the differences in accounts of civilian casualties in Anbar province during the U.S. Marine offensive there. Ellen Knickmeyer, The Post’s Baghdad bureau chief, who wrote both the October and December stories, went back to the Marine Corps, whose officials insisted that the October air raid had not killed civilians but had in fact destroyed a cell of insurgents responsible for setting off roadside bombs.
The December story included this passage: “Analysis of video footage shot by the plane showed only what appeared to be grown men where the bomb struck, [Marine Col. Michael] Denning said. After the airstrike, he said, roadside bombs in the area ‘shut down to almost nothing. That was a good strike, and we got some people who were killing a lot of people,’ Denning said.”
Knickmeyer declined to respond to an e-mail seeking comments.
Munro had a hard time getting lots of folks to comment.
These articles clearly present the two, largely incompatible, versions of the air-raid story. If AP’s picture is true and accurately shows a funeral for women and children killed in the October air raid, then U.S. officials are pushing a false story. But if the U.S. military’s story is true, then AP and The Post may have published a staged, or at least misleading, photo. Maybe it wasn’t a real funeral. Or maybe insurgents had killed the victims.
“Were we sold a bill of goods?” asked Elbert, The Post’s managing editor for photography. “We may have been. I don’t know.”
Defense Department officials, contacted by National Journal, declined to declassify the video taken by the raiding airplane. “We looked at the video and we felt it was in the best interests to be classified,” Navy Cmdr. Terry L. Shannon, who reviews classified videos for possible release, said on March 22. But declassification wouldn’t make much difference, said another Defense official, because the video is of such poor quality that “it does not show what the Marines say they found.”
The funeral photograph was taken by Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi stringer working for the Associated Press. AP officials declined to make Hussein available for an interview, and National Journal was unable to contact him directly in Iraq…
…A series of Hussein’s photographs illustrate another dilemma for photo editors — whether to publish images that may have been created for the photographer. Last September 17, in Ramadi, Hussein took pictures after a battle at a dusty intersection. At least one U.S. armored vehicle had been damaged and towed away, leaving behind its 40-foot dull-gray metal track tread. Hussein’s photographs showed the locals piling debris and auto tires onto the tread, and then celebrating as they lit a fire. Without the fire, smoke, and added debris, the photo would have presented a pretty uninteresting image of people looking at a leftover tank tread. With the smoke, fire, and debris, the image seemed to convey that a major battle had just taken place.
Weeks later, USA Today published a similar Hussein photograph from a different incident in Ramadi, which featured celebrating Sunnis, burning car tires, and a tank tread pulled over on its side.
Lyon said that AP bars photographers from asking people to change a scene, but that a crowd’s spontaneous decision to change a scene in front of a cameraman presents a different situation. “You have this [dilemma] every day all around the world,” he said. “There’s nothing new there.”
LTC Robert Bateman, a military author/journalist who has a long history and knowledge of AP’s past journalistic malpractice and continuing paranoia, recently challenged AP head Tom Curley’s unhinged claims and raised questions about the news organization’s legal counsel/spin doctor:
Standing at the head of the AP today is Tom Curley. In 2006, several months after Hussein’s arrest, Curley’s frustration spilled over in an editorial in which he wrote of Hussein, “He is no longer free to circulate in his native Fallujah or in Ramadi, taking photographs that coalition commanders would prefer not to see published…” and, “Both official and unofficial parties on every side of a conflict try to discredit or silence news they don’t like. That is certainly the case in Iraq, where journalists are routinely harassed, defamed, beaten and kidnapped. At last count, 80 had been killed.”
Now, since the rest of that Washington Post column was all about how Hussein had been arrested by the U.S. military in Iraq, the only connection a reader can logically make (although it is not explicitly stated) is that it is the U.S. military that has “routinely” been beating and kidnapping, journalists and by implication as well, deliberately killed 80 reporters or others involved in journalism. That, folks, is not true.
The U.S. military has not defamed, beaten, kidnapped or killed any journalists. At least, it has not intentionally killed any because they were journalists. (Several Western journalists have, in fact, died as a result of U.S. weapons fire, but not because they were journalists. The same applies for non-Western journalists. All tolled, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, some 124 journalists have died in Iraq, 16 of whom were killed by U.S.-fired weapons or in cross-fire between coalition forces and insurgents. See it all here.)
I thought I should mention that point since nobody in the U.S. government responded to Curley’s comments at that time, at least so far as I could determine.
Curley ended his essay this way: “If Bilal has done something wrong, the Iraqi courts stand ready to try him. Iraqi authorities have asked more than once that he and other Iraqi citizens in prolonged U.S. military custody be turned over to them for due process. We ask the same.”
In mid-November of this year, the U.S. government announced that it planned to do just that. Hussein is to be turned over to the Iraqi legal system. Curley, meanwhile, appears to have changed his mind. The Iraqi justice system, in his eyes, is no longer sufficient. But instead of working with the Iraqi government and judicial system, the AP has hired a former prosecutor named Paul Gardephe to represent Hussein. Now here is the curious part. Gardephe apparently does not speak Arabic. He does not read or write Arabic. He has never represented a client before an Iraqi court, or before any Arabic court. He has no legal training in the Iraqi judicial process, and it will doubtless require a waiver for him to practice law in Iraq before Iraqi judges. But what he does have is this (from Mr. Gardephe’s bio on his New York City law firm’s Web site):
“Paul Gardephe chairs the firm’s Litigation Department, White Collar Defense and Investigations group and is co-Chair of the firm’s Subprime Mortgage Practice Team. His practice includes the defense of white collar criminal prosecutions and grand jury investigations, internal corporate investigations, and related regulatory proceedings. He also co-chairs the firm’s Appellate Practice group and has extensive appellate practice credentials. He often represents the media, particularly in libel and related matters.”
Say what? Are they serious? Bilal Hussein is facing an Iraqi investigative judge, and the AP hires an American lawyer? (The Iraqi system uses a two-tier judge system. The first tier consists of “investigative judges,” which the Iraqi system uses in much the same way that we use grand juries … which is just the tip of the iceberg as far as differences between the two systems go and also partially explains why the specific charges have not been enunciated. Anybody with 30 minutes experience with the Iraqi legal system knows this.)
The AP’s man faces charges with real, serious, consequences, and the AP hires an attorney whose primary qualification seems to be public relations spin for white-collar crimes? On what planet does that make sense? What was Curley thinking when he hired a NYC firm, and a lawyer with no Arabic language skills, no experience in military issues (let alone war zones) or the laws of land warfare, and no legal training in the country in which their employee faces trial? The only thing that occurs to me is that Curley somehow believes that American public opinion is what really counts in the Iraqi justice system. In short, Curley’s behavior (and that of the AP) suggests that his assumption is that it is domestic U.S. public relations that really matter in Iraqi courtrooms.
Two more items to bear in mind as the trial of Bilal Hussein kicks off:
1) Refresh your memories of the case of Pham Xuan An.
2) Re-read my response to one of the AP’s first public relations salvos last year. An excerpt that remains relevant today:
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More telling than what the AP chooses to respond to is what it remained stunningly silent on in its statement about my column and blog posts supposedly filled with “numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations.”
What does the AP have to say about its five-month blackout on the news of Hussein’s detention, first reported on this blog and covered extensively in what it derisively calls the “so-called blogosphere?”
What does the AP have to say about the questions raised by National Journal’s Neil Munro over a dubious Hussein photo taken in October 2005 of a purported funeral image outside Ramadi disputed by the US military?
What does the AP have to say about questions raised by milblogger Bill Roggio concerning another suspicious AP/Hussein-photographed scene in Ramadi of a favorite staging ground for terrorists?
What does the AP have to say about blogger Cori Dauber’s scathing critique of old AP television footage used to spread bogus reports of a fake “uprising” in Ramadi in December 2005?
What does the AP have to say about blogger Clarice Feldman’s post at the American Thinker on an Iraqi intelligence document that bragged about “one of our sources (the degree of trust in him is good) who works in the American Associated Press Agency?”
Instead, most of AP’s 444-word response reads like an Amnesty International press release arguing for the “charge or release” law enforcement approach to Hussein and 14,000 other security detainees deemed high-risk threats to our coalition forces in Iraq:
“Malkin would deny Bilal due process and the rule of law by trying him in her column and assuming his guilt by mere association…There you can learn why AP has been asking the U.S. military to either charge or release Bilal…AP is insisting that the U.S. military follow accepted due process under the law and the Geneva Conventions – that is, give Bilal Hussein the chance to see any evidence and answer formal charges; if the evidence is not there, release him.”
With its non-response response to my column, the AP has made its priorities crystal clear. AP stands for Advocacy Press. Its reporting on military detentions and interrogations of enemy combatants and security detainees–and its coverage of the accompanying legislative and legal debates–cannot be trusted as fair and impartial as it lobbies aggressively for the military to subjugate its security concerns and intelligence-gathering mission in favor of what AP exec Tom Curley calls “justice.”
You can count on AP, the “essential global network,” to support your “right to know” and cover the news–except when the news organization deems it more important to cover it up. Right, AP?
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