Revelations recently of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners offer the latest example of how digital technologies from cameras to the Internet are changing the rules for news gathering.
Disturbing photographs of the humiliating treatment of Iraqi prisoners first appeared in a TV broadcast, but it was the free-for-all medium of the Web that amplified the abuses. Web logs are displaying the disturbing photos--reportedly snapped with inexpensive digital cameras carried by many ordinary U.S. soldiers--and offering the rare opportunity to peruse the complete text of a classified U.S. military report describing the potentially criminal behavior of its own troops.
After popping up on hundreds of news organizations' sites and personal Web archives, the Army report and photographs, which depicted soldiers taunting naked prisoners, became impossible for the Bush administration and its pro-war allies to ignore.
On Wednesday, President Bush took to the airwaves in an attempt to quell mounting international criticism. "This is a serious matter," he told the Al Arabyia network. "It's a matter that reflects badly on my country. Our citizens in America are appalled by what they saw, just like people in the Middle East are appalled."
The U.S. military has battled high impact images delivered via new technologies since video brought the Vietnam conflict into the country's living rooms in the 1960s, undermining public support for the war. Now, the army faces a similar public relations disaster spawned by simple gadgets and lightening distribution of the Internet.
Accelerating the photographs' rapid distribution is their origin; according to The Washington Post, they were taken with inexpensive digital cameras that units in Iraq brought with them. Soldiers in Iraq are granted access to e-mail, and many have used the opportunity to send home mundane tourist snapshots of the desert and mosques.
Investigators recently found the prison photos among those commonplace photographs, squirreled away on CD-ROMs, according to The Washington Post, which on Thursday published on its Web site another set of images from the Abu Ghraib prison.
The Internet postings of the Iraqi photos do not mark the first time amateur snapshots have shaken the world. In 1991, an amateur video showed Los Angeles police officers clubbing and kicking Rodney King. Amateur videos provided the most dramatic footage of the World Trade Center towers crumbling a decade later.
Equally telling are the graphic passages in the internal military report, marked "secret," prepared by Major Gen. Antonio Taguba. An article in the New Yorker included only short excerpts.
The unedited online version leaves little to the imagination. In it, Taguba concludes that military police performed acts such as "forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped" and "using military working dogs, without muzzles, to intimidate and frighten detainees, and in at least one case, biting and severely injuring a detainee."
Steven Aftergood, an analyst who follows government secrecy, suggested that the report's secret status may violate federal law. "The fact remains that classification served to conceal illegal activity for months, if not longer," he wrote in a Federation of American Scientists newsletter this week. Bush's
executive order 13292 says "in no case shall information be classified in order to conceal violations of law."
This isn't the first time that photos from Iraq appearing online have embarrassed the Pentagon and the White House, either. A few weeks ago, The Memory Hole published 288 photographs of military coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base it obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.