Leaking self-doubt

The Abu Ghraib torture scandal was pushed into the media by disgruntled military men, not campaigning journalists.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Is there no end to America’s photo fallout over Iraq? Since CBS first broadcast the torture snaps from Abu Ghraib prison on 29 April 2004, followed by further revelations of torture and photographic evidence in the New Yorker on 1 May and in the Washington Post on 6 May, the pictures have appeared everywhere. They have gone ‘to the ends of the Earth’, says one American writer, ‘and have painted brilliantly and indelibly an image of America that could remain with us for years, if not decades’ (1).

President George W Bush did a special turn on Arab TV to denounce the torture depicted in the photos as ‘un-American’ and ‘unacceptable’. One British journalist says the photos symbolise ‘the destruction of morality’, another that they have exposed ‘a hole in America’s heart’. The Glasgow Sunday Herald says they are ‘the photos that lost the war’ (2). Former supporters of the war have undergone Damascene conversions after looking at snaps of Private Lynndie England and co lording it over naked, hooded Iraqis. ‘How could I have been such a mug?’ asked Boris Johnson in the Daily Telegraph. ‘I believed in this war…I was so wrong’, declared Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror (3).

The photos have become tools of protest in the Middle East. In Baghdad protesters held makeshift placards with the Abu Ghraib pictures attached, under the heading ‘This is what America does’. At the Commonwealth cemetery in Gaza, printouts of the black-and-white photos seeming to show a British soldier urinating on an Iraqi prisoner – first published in the Daily Mirror and since exposed as fakes – have been stuck on to the headstones of British First World War graves with the words ‘Curse will chase you forever’ (4). On 11 May 2004, an Islamic fundamentalist website unveiled a video showing the beheading of Nick Berg, a young American civilian in Iraq, and said he was killed in revenge for the ‘satanic degradation’ of Iraqis by Americans at Abu Ghraib (5).

And it can only get worse for the Bush administration. On 12 May, CBS broadcast a video diary shot by a female soldier in Camp Bucca prison in southern Iraq, in which she confessed to hating Iraqi detainees and having thrown rocks at them. The Washington Post has announced that, thus far, it has only published 10 of 1,000 shocking photos from Abu Ghraib in its possession. On 13 May, US Congressmen and women given access to the as-yet unpublished torture photos said they are ‘sickening’, ‘heartbreaking’ and ‘worse than expected’. Little wonder that US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has tried to brace world opinion by declaring: ‘There is worse to come….’ (6)

Yet while the snapshots have been disseminated and debated around the world – republished on antiwar websites as evidence of American arrogance, analysed by academics, picked over by feminists interested in the role of women in war and torture – few have asked how they came to be in the public arena in the first place. How did such sensitive pictures, which have apparently lost America its war, become so widely available? How did they get into the hands of not one major media outlet, but three – CBS, the New Yorker and the Washington Post – leading to a media scramble over who would publish them first?

Tracing how the photos became such hot public property reveals something striking, not only about the torture scandal, but about the coalition itself. This is a story, not of investigative journalism or antiwar activists exposing imperialist America to the world, but rather of America exposing its own uncertainty for all to see. The photos appear to have come from within US military or political circles; they were effectively volunteered for public consumption by elements within the military or higher up in the Pentagon, seemingly as part of a process of internal unravelling and deep disagreement over aspects of the war. In a sense, the publication of these photos to international outrage can be seen as the externalisation of America’s own self-doubt about Iraq, and about its own mission in the world.

Many claim that the torture story shows good old-fashioned investigative journalism in action. ‘Who was the first to tell the world about what was going wrong at Abu Ghraib prison?’ asks one commentator. ‘Answer: America’s weekly the New Yorker. Who first aired photos of American soldiers tormenting their Iraqi prisoners? Answer: America’s CBS TV network…. Credit goes to the American media.’ (7)

Some journalists have certainly done some good work in revealing evidence of torture at Abu Ghraib, in particular veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh at the New Yorker, the journalist who managed to get hold of the US military’s internal 53-page report on the torture as well as of the photos. And once the story became public the media was key in making it the big global issue of the day. But over the past four months the media have been slack on the Abu Ghraib story, allowing it to slip through their hands on more than one occasion. The driving force for the torture scandal was not in Washington’s or New York’s newsrooms. This story, it seems, did not come about as a result of journalists chasing it; rather, it was effectively handed to the media by disgruntled military men.

‘The leakers are driving the story’, says Connie Coyne of the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah. ‘I do not think the press would have moved on this story if the leakers had not provided photographs of what was going on.’ Coyne points out that reporters have known of allegations of abuse at Abu Ghraib for months, but did little to investigate. US officials first revealed that they were investigating such allegations in a news release on 16 January 2004. A soldier reported the allegations to US military commanders on 13 January; a criminal investigation was launched by US military command in Baghdad on 14 January; the press was informed of the investigation on 16 January; and Lieutenant General Richard Sanchez requested a high-level review of practices at detention centres in Iraq on 19 January, which began under Major General Antonio Taguba on 31 January.

Coyne says the US media did little actively to follow up US officials’ announcement of an investigation into torture at Abu Ghraib. In her 8 May column for the Salt Lake Tribune, she pointed out that the New York Times ran a 612-word story on 17 January, the day after the announcement was made, and then ‘the story disappeared’ – until the Washington Post ran a 983-word story on the investigations on 21 March, followed by a 442-word story in America’s Knight Ridder newspapers on 22 March (8). It was another six weeks before the torture story became big news and the photos were published. Why the long delay? ‘One of the great failings in American journalism today is the naive belief that investigative journalism simply involves making enough contacts so that one of them will leak information to a reporter’, Coyne tells me.

The photos from Abu Ghraib may have only recently been published but many in the American media have known of their existence for months. Barbara Starr of CNN’s Washington Bureau wrote a news report about the photos four months ago, on 21 January. She reported that a source from inside the Pentagon had told CNN that US military command’s investigation of abuse was ‘focused on Abu Ghraib’, and that ‘US soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners’, photographs ‘which may depict male and female soldiers’ (9). Why didn’t CNN pursue the story further, and try to get hold of the photos that its rivals CBS would eventually unveil 100 days later on 29 April? Both Barbara Starr and CNN’s PR spokesperson decline to comment on how CNN appears to have lost such a big story.

According to one of the American military families that was reportedly central to the CBS News report about torture in Abu Ghraib, much of the media have shied away from the story over the past two months. Ivan Frederick, father of Staff Sergeant Frederick, an army reservist turned prison guard who was one of those interrogated by US military command in Baghdad over the events in Abu Ghraib, has tried to make the torture story into news. He feared that his son, and other soldiers, would be made into scapegoats for bigger ‘command lapses’ in Iraq detention centres, and that the best safeguard against such scapegoating was to make as many people as possible aware of what had occurred. In March, Frederick reportedly sent letters to 17 members of US Congress and various media outlets, but got ‘virtually no response’ (10).

In desperation he turned to David Hackworth, a retired US colonel who now runs a website criticising US military strategy and calling for a better deal for American soldiers. Hackworth tells me that Frederick had tried to contact Bill O’Reilly, who presents the popular O’Reilly Factor news show on Fox News, and many other media types, but nobody wanted to touch the story. Frederick contacted Hackworth on 23 March; Hackworth put them in touch with CBS and five weeks later, on 29 April, CBS became the first media outlet to broadcast the torture story. (CBS had planned to air the story earlier, in mid-April, but it held back after being contacted directly by General Richard Myers, America’s chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who said that broadcasting the torture photos might inflame the stand-off between Iraqis and US marines in Fallujah (11).)

The failure of the media to expose the torture story earlier, even as Pentagon sources and soldiers’ families leaked information about the torture, reveals much about the balance in this story. It suggests that it came about less as a result of campaigning journalism and more as a result of pushiness on the part of aggrieved elements in the military or close to the military.

From January, when a Pentagon source told CNN of the suspected existence of torture photos, to March, when Ivan Frederick started hawking revelations of torture around various media outlets, to April and early May, when hundreds of photos were leaked to three major news outlets, the drive has consistently come from inside military circles, rather than from roving reporters knocking down the doors of the Pentagon and demanding to know the truth. Since January, the media have let this story slip away again and again.

So who are the leakers – and why are they intensively leaking such a sensitive story at such a sensitive time for America’s venture in Iraq? The three media outlets that have broadcast or published exclusives about torture at Abu Ghraib – CBS, the New Yorker and the Washington Post – are, of course, not revealing their sources.

David Hackworth denies that Ivan Frederick, whom he put in touch with CBS, gave CBS the photos. He thinks some of the revelations about the military’s investigation of claims of torture may have come from the Fredericks, but that the photos probably came from someone else. Like whom? ‘From the kids who were told to do the dirty business’, he says. It is widely reported that the torture photos, taken on digital cameras, have been doing the email rounds of soldiers in Iraq and their families in America for the past few months, so the pictures could have been passed to the media by any number of people. Some US army officers believe that soldiers from the 372nd Military Police Company, who perpetrated the abuse, may have emailed the photos to news organisations. The army itself says it ‘kept a tight lid on its copies [of the photos] at a safe in Baghdad’ (12).

Others, however, suspect that while some of the pictures may have been leaked by email-happy soldiers, others were most likely leaked from within the Pentagon itself – and possibly by more than one Pentagon official. ‘There is growing suspicion that photographs showing abuse of detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison were leaked to CBS from inside the Department of Defence’, reported Jeff Gannon of America’s Talon News on 6 May (13). ‘I suspect the photos came from within the Pentagon’, says Connie Coyne.

Some commentators have pointed out, perhaps a little presumptively, that where wet-behind-the-ears squaddies might be expected to send gruesome, grinning torture snaps to their brothers or mates or girlfriends, or maybe to a tabloid newspaper or a fluffy news programme, the major leaking of the torture story has been to serious news programmes – to CBS’s 60 Minutes II presented by Dan Rather, to the New Yorker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Seymour Hersh, and, of course, to the Washington Post, the newspaper of record as far as the Bush administration is concerned. Then there is fact that the story was leaked to three media outlets rather than one, suggesting either that there is more than one Pentagon source pushing this story into the public arena, or that it’s one source with a serious agenda to make the story big, big news.

Whether or not it was military figures in the Pentagon who leaked the photos to the press, some of them have certainly used the ensuing scandal to launch attacks against the civilian leadership in the Department of Defence over the war in Iraq, specifically against Donald Rumsfeld. One ‘senior general at the Pentagon’ told the Washington Post: ‘I do not believe we had a clearly defined war strategy…. [Rumsfeld] refused to listen or adhere to military advice.’ A special forces officer said: ‘Rumsfeld needs to go, as does Paul Wolfowtiz [Rumsfeld’s deputy].’ (14)

In an unprecedented move, the Army Times, the US military newspaper that gets distributed to American forces around the world, published an editorial in the wake of the torture scandal calling for Rumsfeld to resign, describing the torture scandal as ‘a failure of leadership from start to finish’. Some have claimed that the humiliation in Abu Ghraib was a means of ‘softening up’ prisoners for interrogation; perhaps the leaking of the torture photos was a means of softening up Rumsfeld and the rest of the DoD’s civilian leadership for the real assault by military leaders over what many of them consider to be a disastrous war in Iraq. As one report points out, the misgivings about Rumsfeld’s war expressed by senior military figures over the past week may not have ‘directly addressed the abuse scandal – however, the furore about the treatment of prisoners appears to have crytallised discontent about Rumsfeld’s strategy for postwar Iraq….’ (15).

This discontent between the military and civilian leaderships in the Pentagon – between generals and officers who prefer to fight straightforward wars for a clear national interest and Bushies who launched a self-serving war in Iraq for political ends – has been brewing for two years. Military figures have criticised Rumsfeld’s war strategy and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz’s vision of a ‘domino’ effect in the Middle East, where bringing democracy to Iraq would apparently allow democracy to flourish across the region. For commanders who prefer quick and clean, and preferably small-scale, military ops, the Bush administration’s political stunt in Iraq has grated. Some military figures have described Bush officials’ plans for Iraq as ‘grandiose and unattainable’ and as requiring ‘way too much fairy dust’ (16).

Such clashes have come to a head over the past month, following the debacles in Fallujah and Najaf and Rumsfeld’s call for a further 20,000 troops to be deployed to Iraq this coming summer. Maybe the leaking of the torture photos, possibly by someone inside the Pentagon, was part and parcel of this clash; maybe it wasn’t. But one thing is certain – now that the torture scandal is out there and being debated to ‘the ends of the Earth’, it has become bound up in deeper disagreements within US military and political circles over Iraq, war and the future of the Middle East.

Whether it was military families trying to protect their loved ones from being scapegoated by US military command in Baghdad, or faceless Pentagon sources seeking to score some points against Rumsfeld for dragging America into a seemingly intractable war, the leaking of the torture photos reveals as much about internal doubt about America’s mission in Iraq as it does about the cruelty visited upon Iraqis in Abu Ghraib. The motor of the torture story appears to have been an internal falling-apart, rather than external pressure from journalists or anti-war campaigners for the truth about Abu Ghraib. It seems to have been a profound uncertainty among American soldiers or military officials that allowed the torture snaps to be leaked, and to become such a powerful international symbol of American failure in Iraq.

In this sense, the newspapers that have splashed the torture pics on their front pages under headlines such as ‘America’s shame’, and the anti-war protesters displaying the photos under banners declaring ‘This is what America does’, are perhaps not being as radical as they think. In many ways they are holding up America’s own, already-leaked self-doubt, and simply throwing it back in America’s face.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) A wretched new picture of America, Philip Kennicot, Washington Post, 5 May 2004

(2) The pictures that lost the war, Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, 2 May 2004

(3) How could I have been such a mug?, Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 6 May 2004; I believed in this war…I was so wrong, Tony Parsons, Daily Mirror, 10 May 2004

(4) ‘Grave mistake’, Sun, 11 May 2004

(5) US civilian beheaded in Iraq, Tehran Times, 12 May 2004

(6) New Iraq photos ‘more graphic’, Tim Harper, Toronto Star, 13 May 2004

(7) Credit goes to American media, Farrukah Saleem, Hi Pakistan, 11 May 2004

(8) Photos aren’t the most shocking part of abuse story, Connie Coyne, Salt Lake Tribune, 8 May 2004

(9) Details of army’s abuse investigation surface, Barbara Starr, CNN, 21 January 2004

(10) Soldier’s family set in motion chain of events on disclosure, James Dao and Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, 8 May 2004

(11) Defence Department set the agenda for prison scandal, Ann and Tom Kenney, Boston Globe, 13 May 2004

(12) Tom Bowman on Iraqi prisoner abuse, Baltimore Sun, 11 May 2004

(13) CBS may have obtained abuse photos in Pentagon leak, Jeff Gannon, Talon News, 6 May 2004

(14) Dissension grows in senior ranks on war strategy, Thomas E Ricks, Washington Post, 9 May 2004

(15) New picture and military critics increase pressure on Bush, Suzanne Goldenberg and David Leigh, Guardian, 10 May 2004

(16) Dissension grows in senior ranks on war strategy, Thomas E Ricks, Washington Post, 9 May 2004

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Topics Politics


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