24 November 2007

Bilal Hussein Update (2)

At State of the Art David Schonauer has spoken out forthrightly in defense of Bilal Hussein's rights to a prompt, fair hearing. I regularly disagree with Daivd, but think this statement is important. Meanwhile, at Conscientious Jörg Colberg has linked to this report that supplies much needed background detail:

U.S. Seeks to Prosecute Pulitzer Prize-Winning A.P. Photographer
Scott Horton (Harper's ~ 21 Nov. 07)

"Reports out since Monday note that the United States Department of Defense will seek to have criminal charges brought against Bilal Hussein, an Associated Press photographer who belonged to a team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for photographs of the war in Iraq. Hussein’s contribution to the package included a series of arresting photographs of close up fighting from the assault on Falluja.

The story was first broken by a right-wing blogger who has has been used as a regular dissemination point for information about the case by senior Pentagon figures. That fact is one of the dead give-aways of the case. This blogger and several of her associates published histrionic attacks on Hussein before he was arrested, claiming that his photographs showed that he was associated with insurgent organizations and attacking the Pulitzer Committee for its decision to honor the A.P.’s submission of war photographs. In the end, the order to arrest Hussein came from very high up, and the reason for the arrest was unmistakable: he was the man who took those damned photographs!

A Pentagon source who requested anonymity advised me that the Pentagon has prepared a total of nine charges against Hussein. All but two of the charges are “make weight,” the source said. The two “more serious accusations” are that Hussein promised to help an individual suspected of involvement in insurgent activities to secure a false I.D., and that his photographs—disseminated internationally by the A.P.–demonstrate that Hussein is a propagandist for insurgents. The source said all of these allegations, excepting perhaps the claims about the I.D., were “extremely weak” and “lacked any meaningful evidence to support them” but noted that “after more than a year and a half of holding this man in prison, it was not possible simply to release him, because that would mean admitting that a mistake was made.”

The source also stated that the Pentagon’s public affairs division, now headed by Dorrance Smith, had been deeply engaged in the matter from the outset. He said that the Pentagon would say that all decisions were made on the ground in Baghdad. “In a formal sense that is true, but Baghdad is dancing to the Pentagon’s tune.” The source also stated that using right-wing bloggers as a means of disseminating the story was a strategy formally embraced by Pentagon public affairs at a very high level. “They’re natural allies. Our message is their message. And they have no particular interest in fact-checking. It drives the mainstream media nuts.” He likened the right-wing blogosphere to sheep dogs who would keep the American mainstream media in line.

The Associated Press and its lawyers have previously investigated all specific allegations made against Hussein. In every case, the allegations turned out to be baseless. I examined several of the allegations myself, and learned in the process that the U.S. military had not even investigated the accusations it dished out. Similarly, the Associated Press undertook a review of all of the Hussein photographs and concluded that a series of claims made by right-wing bloggers and the Pentagon about them were simply untrue. Much of this could be established through contemporaneous and conclusive evidence.

With respect to the accusation about I.D.s, my own experience in Baghdad showed that fake I.D.s were readily available in the public market and that most if not all Iraqis had them. The demand for fake I.D.s has an obvious source. Sunni Iraqis are eager to have identification that shows them to be Shi’ia and vice versa in order to try to evade ethnic cleansing operations that target a large part of the citizenry. The charge leveled at Hussein, if true, is therefore something of which a large part of the population is guilty.

Finally, U.S. forces have repeatedly insinuated that Hussein had close ties to a particular insurgent organization based in Al-Anbar province. No serious evidence has been presented to support this claim. However, the organization they cite is not considered to be hostile by U.S. forces in the region today. In fact, it has regularly cooperated with U.S. forces, and is now receiving training and equipment support from the Americans. It is in fact one of the key pillars in the U.S. military’s successful transformation of the situation in Al-Anbar. So the implication that Hussein is somehow an insurgent is also consciously deceitful.

It is also striking that the Pentagon says that Hussein attempted to “infiltrate” the Associated Press. Having studied in great detail the process by which Hussein came to be hired, I know this is an absurd allegation. But it has a clear provenance. Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and some of his key Neoconservative advisors repeatedly leveled this accusation in the period 2004-06. As you will recall, this is the period in which Iraq was most emphatically not in a “Civil War,” according to the Pentagon (though not according to the generals on the ground in Iraq). The situation on the ground in Iraq was souring, American media were reporting on it, and this was emerging as a domestic political issue. The Pentagon was eager to chill media coverage of the insurgency.

There is probably no journalist in Iraq who did more to provide dramatic coverage of the insurgency in Al-Anbar than Bilal Hussein. This is why he was seized, and it is why he is now coming to face charges. But in the end, the facts couldn’t be plainer. The Pentagon’s real gripe has never been with journalists on the ground like Hussein: it has been with the editors who allow their reporting to creep into the American mainstream.

It is in the end about freedom of the press, and the right of the American public to secure more comprehensive coverage of what is happening in a war zone.

“The press is not the enemy,” Secretary Gates recently told the graduating class of midshipmen in Annapolis. But the treatment of Bilal Hussein suggests this message has still not sunk in with some Pentagon politicos. Part of the press is very clearly still being viewed as “the enemy.” And Bilal Hussein has become the whipping boy."


I've highlighted several portions of this piece from Harper's online that seem especially disturbing. The first point is that BushCo is using right-wing bloggers to spew propaganda as a matter of policy. This is not "independent" media; it is pathetic, intellectually dishonest, and servile. It makes the Washington press corps look like a font of reliable reporting. It surely is not in any way "patriotic" since it involves disseminating dubious information to citizens for whom the government allegedly works in ways that undermine the operation of a free and reliable press. More on this point below.

The second point, is that the military not only seems to have no evidence for any of their charges, but seems to have made no effort to actually obtain any. The charges against Hussein apparently are baseless. I myself cannot make that determination with confidence. But that is why we have a judicial system, which the military has assiduously avoided in this case, ~ to determine whether charges and allegations are plausible let alone "true." As I have said here before, either bring the man to court and make your best case or release him. (Of course, the right is now falling back on the rationalization that the real, damning evidence against Hussein is "top secret," "classified," etc. and so cannot actually be revealed. Funny how the press reports on this case fail to mention that fact. Perhaps what is at work is over-heated right-wing group think.)

The third point is that Bilal Hussein has been denied legal protections and he apparently has been so mistreated because his work embodies the aims of a free press. He was showing us things the U.S. government wanted to keep hidden. For that he has been held for nearly two years without charge. The U.S. government has locked up Bilal Hussein and the only rationale they've offered for doing so is "Because we say so." I thought we were fighting to spread democracy and the rule of law. This seems like an extremely odd way of pursuing that aim.

Finally, the un-named right-wing blogger is Michelle Malkin, on whose blog you can find the interesting graphic at the top of this post. (Like any good right-winger her post on Hussein is a tissue of insinuation and implausible inference.) Malkin clearly subscribes to the well-know pillar of Western law "guilt by association." And she shows no real need to rely on actual evidence since there is, in this case, none on offer. If this is what conservatism amounts to here in the U.S., our circumstances are dire.

P.S.: You can find a press release from The Committee to Protect Journalists on the Hussein case here. And Reporters Without Borders relased a similar plea here.

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Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Fair trial notwithstanding, don't his pictures make you raise an eyebrow? How did he get so tight with the insurgents? Some of his shots feature terrorists posing for the camera with an AK-47 pointed at some kidnap victim's head! What's the extent of his involvement? I'd certainly be interested in questioning this guy if I was a general in Iraq.

24 November, 2007 15:29  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


The miliary have had him in custody NINETEEN monthss and have not leveled a consistent, plausible, public set of charges. Maybe they have some good reason to hold himi. But they have not brought that reason forward. The whole point of habeas corpus is to address this sort of situation. As I have repeatedly said, let them make their best case in a fair court.


24 November, 2007 18:07  
Anonymous Dawei from Beijing said...

Is habeas corpus technically applicable in this case considering that he's an Iraqi citizen?

24 November, 2007 20:04  
Blogger stanco said...

Bilal's automatically guilty without any credible, positive proof whatsoever; all of Blackwater is immune and innocent (even when the FBI believes otherwise).

There is now an established history of the US targeting foreign (ie- Arabic, in particular) journalists... http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/07/19/1455232&mode=thread&tid=25

W was set to bomb Al Jazeera itself, if Blair hadn't intervened.

It is the job and responsibility of any journalist (print, photo, electronic) to go behind the scenes whenever possible and capture "both" sides of the story- such is the very history of "conflict" journalism. Always has been. Recording the "enemy" does not automatically put one in league with the opposition. Would a "coalition" journalist turn down an interview with Osama?

24 November, 2007 20:32  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


My understanding is that the U.S. is finally bringing him to court because there is a limit on how long they can hold him with pressing charges. They are approaching that limit. I am not an expert in international law. However, 19 months in jail without charge, especially in the face of complaints from credible organizations (e.g., AP, CPJ, Reporters without Borders, etc.) surely raises suspicion. Regardless of whwether hc "technically applies," if the military has a case they should make it. There surely are other due process considerations that might be invoked. If he is guilty of something prove it. If not they are holding an innocent civilian without charge.

In response to your earlier comment, since most press coverage in Iraq comes from "embedded" sources it is small surprise that his work might stand out. The D.O.D. has tried its damnedest to control all coverage of this war and - until they show otherwise - this seems to me to be purely another instance of that campaign. We got into the war on the basis of lies, they want to continue it on the same basis.

24 November, 2007 20:54  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

P.S.: Dawei, another point. If BushCo (and remember that DOD has been run by Rumsfeld until recently) had demonstrated the least bit of respect for the rule of law since 9/11 I might be inclined to worry about legal technicalities. Since they are cntinuously offering wholly self-sering and tendentious interpretaitons of lobstanding legal rules, I simply do not trust them.

24 November, 2007 21:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you blind Jim, as well as biassed? Thanks for the link, where you find this:

"Hussein was detained April 12, 2006 after marines entered his house in Ramadi to establish a temporary observation post and found bomb-making materials, insurgent propaganda and a surveillance photograph of a US military installation."

- So I don't care if he's held captive without charges for a few years. What they are probably doing is getting useful information from him.

Your priorities and morality are unpleasantly skewed.

25 November, 2007 11:10  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


If the military had found bomb making materials that they could link directly to Hussein, they would say so. They have not. None of hte likely charges indicate that they found such evidence. The link to Michelle Malkin is a bad joke. She is a propagandist, nothing more. If you believe her you must be blind.

Also I like your euphemism "getting useful information from him." Why can't you come out and say torturing?

Why not bring the fellow to court and see what might actually be the case? It might prove you wrong. There is the difference between us. I am willing to be proven wrong. You can't let go of your prejudices because then your fear might prove gorundless. Bye!

25 November, 2007 15:18  
Blogger Tom White said...

I just read through the posting and comments on Malkin's blog. What scares me is not the treatment of Bilal Hussein but that there are people who are like the person who posted the following comment. I decided not to become a 'combat photographer' because I'm afraid an idiot with this kind of mentality might have a gun and a uniform. Airstrikes and warfare I can handle. Being killed because I'm NOT armed or wearing a uniform I cannot.

On November 20th, 2007 at 5:28 pm, CarpiJugulum said:

My understanding of the Geneva Convention is that this said reporter was not in uniform (like the enemy combatants). Therefore he falls under a certain label. SPY. Under the convention spies can and should be shot once captured.

He has no real rights as on the battlefield spies are a low form of life that is not looked kindly upon.

The A.P. should be very thankful we have politicians running this war. If we let the military run things like it should be. The war would be over, these terrorists and spies would be dead and we would be going about our lives.

26 November, 2007 16:45  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I guess I find both the Government's tretament of Hussein and the attitudes of those hanging out with Malkin reprehensible. Her blog is a snakepit. That said, the U.S. government is acting very badly in all of this.

I am not a libertarian mostly because I find both "spontaneous" decentralized as well as "official" abuses of power dangerous.

26 November, 2007 18:11  

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