A couple of weeks ago, the Britain’s Daily Telegraph released what seemed to be a blockbuster story, which spread like wildfire over the Internet. “New ‘Prisoner Abuse’ Photographs Emerge Despite US Bid to Block Publication” ran the headline of a story by Alex Spillius. The article went on to claim that “Graphic photographs of alleged prisoner abuse, thought to be among up to 2,000 images Barack Obama is trying to prevent from being released, emerged yesterday.”
The story was wrong. The photos in question, which had been posted on the website of an Australian television station, has been published before several times. They were not part of the group of images that Obama had considered for release. As Mark Benjamin and I reported in 2006, the photo that the Telegraph displayed with its story, of a naked detainee hanging upside down from a bed, had been investigated by the Army, which had found that it was one of several photos showing a mentally deranged detainee in the prison who was being allowed to harm himself. Investigators concluded that the actions depicted in the photo was unrelated to interrogation.
Rather than acknowledge the mistake, as is American journalistic convention, with a clearly posted correction or clarification, the Telegraph simply changed the copy on their web story after the Department of Defense complained. The new story, at the same URL, had a new headline: “Concern at ‘prisoner abuse’ photographs as Barack Obama prepares to block publication.” It also had a new lead: “Shocking images of inmates in Iraq are the kind of images whose release the president has now vowed to fight in court.” Spillius’ byline was replaced with the phrase “By Our Foreign Staff.”
Today, a new report has been released by the Telegraph with the headline: “Abu Ghraib abuse photos ‘show rape,’” by two other Telegraph reporters, who had recently interviewed Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba, the author of the first Army investigation into Abu Ghraib. In the article, Taguba is quoted claiming that unreleased photos exist that show “torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.” The article also uses odd passive-voice sentence constructions to describe specific sex acts that are allegedly shown in the photographs. Again the web has lit up with links and chatter. The American Prospect now has a blog post called “Release the Abu Ghraib Rape Photos,” as if the existence of these photos was a known fact. It is not. (More after the jump.)
“The article is incorrect,” says Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Department of Defense spokesperson. “It alleges that there were images of apparent rape and sexual abuse. This is incorrect. . . . None of the photos in question depict the images described in the article.” By “photos in question,” Ryder was referring to the roughly 2,000 more than 21 images* [see update below] that President Obama recently decided not to release. At the briefing today, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs echoed the broad denial, saying that the Telegraph report was “non-factual.”
It is important to note that rumors of rape photos have been around for years, but there has never been any proof that they exist. The likely source of the rumors is well known, as claims of rape and sexual assault are described in some detail in the military investigations of Abu Ghraib. One detainee, who was interviewed by Army investigators, claimed to have witnessed the rape of a teenage male detainee by a male interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison. He claimed that a female soldier took pictures of the event, but as one Army investigation found in 2004, “no other reporting supports DETAINEE-05’s allegation, nor have photographs of the rape surfaced.” It is possible that the photos were destroyed at some point, or they are still kept in some secret file drawer deep within the Pentagon and away from investigators. But it is highly unlikely that these photos still exist in the criminal files that Obama has declined to release. The President himself has said that the photos are not as explosive as photos that have already been released. “I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib, but they do represent conduct that did not conform with the Army Manual,” Obama said on May 13.
So was Taguba, who distinguished himself throughout the Abu Ghraib investigation, calling the president a liar? Has he personally seen these photos? Did he misspeak? Or did the Telegraph misinterpret or misreport his statements? I don’t know. But the Telegraph now has a duty to explain further. And I know enough to be skeptical of claims made by the Telegraph reporters and headline writers. I only hope that the newspaper behaves a bit more responsibly this time, gets further clarification from Taguba, and clearly posts any clarification or correction that may arise.
UPDATE: *The exact number of unreleased photos that are responsive to the ACLU request is not known. In an April 23, 2009 letter to the court, acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin wrote “[t]he Department of Defense is preparing to release the 21 photos at issue in the appeal and 23 other photos previously identified as responsive. In addition, the Government also is procesing for release a substantial number of other images contained in Army CID [Criminal Investigation Division] reports that have been closed during the pendency of this case; these other images will be processed consistent with the Courts previous rulings on repsponsive images in this case.”