No Comment — May 26, 2009, 4:39 pm

War Games with the Press

Recently, Iranians arrested and tried a young North Dakota-reared journalist named Roxana Saberi. She was accused of espionage and held under harsh conditions. The Obama administration cried foul, and newspapers around the United States raged against the Iranians and their abuse of the denizens of the Fourth Estate. The objections were well taken and had commendable effect, as Saberi’s sentence was reduced, and she was freed and allowed to return to the States. But there’s another country whose treatment of journalists might put even Iran to shame: the United States. The U.S. has detained dozens of journalists in Iraq. Most of these were fleeting, and the journalists were allowed to return home after their identity was confirmed. A number of journalists, however, weren’t so lucky.

Consider Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a cameraman for CBS news, and Bilal Hussein, a photographer for the Associated Press. Abdul Ameer was held for a year and accused of being a terrorist before he was able to get to a court and find complete vindication. The Pentagon claimed it had convincing evidence that showed he was present at a series of bombing incidents. The claims, which ran for two days on cable news networks quoting unnamed Pentagon sources, turned out to be a lie, probably concocted to embarrass CBS. Bilal Hussein was held for two years. His offense? He belonged to a team of photographers who won the Pulitzer Prize for their war photography—a fact that sent Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld into a rage and led directly to his arrest, imprisonment, and torture. Ultimately, a panel of Iraqi judges also directed his release, finding the accusations that the Americans raised against him to be utterly without merit. I am deeply familiar with Abdul Ameer’s case and that of Bilal Hussein—I served as counsel to each of them. In the course of their representation, I quickly became convinced not only that they were completely innocent of the charges brought against them but also that the American officers who were holding them fully understood they were innocent from the outset. Several of them went out of the way to tell me that, in fact. Which makes the Pentagon’s decision to have them held and mistreated very puzzling. And yes, in both cases, the decisions were made in the Pentagon, not in the field in Iraq.

And now we have another case. Liz Sly of the Los Angeles Times reports:

The soldiers came at 1:30 a.m, rousing family members who were sleeping on the roof to escape the late-summer heat. They broke down the front door. Accompanied by dogs, American and Iraqi troops burst into the Jassam family home in the town of Mahmoudiya south of Baghdad. “Where is the journalist Ibrahim?” one of the Iraqi soldiers barked at the grandparents, children and grandchildren as they staggered blearily down the stairs.

Ibrahim Jassam, a cameraman and photographer for the Reuters news agency, stepped forward, one of this brothers recalled. “Take me if you want me, but please leave my brothers.” The soldiers rifled through the house, confiscating his computer hard drive and cameras. And then they led him away, handcuffed and blindfolded. That was Sept. 2. Jassam, 31, has been in U.S. custody ever since.

I have no personal knowledge of the facts of Jassam’s case, but it sure sounds familiar to me, down to the fact that an Iraqi court found there was no evidence justifying his detention by the U.S. forces, but they refused to let him go. That would make the legal tenor of his current detention a kidnapping, not a lawful detention—not that his American captors would care, of course.

In an address two years ago to the Naval Academy, Secretary Robert Gates told the midshipmen that the press was not “the enemy.” It’s taking some time for this message to sink in. But maybe the Obama Administration’s new crew looking into detainee affairs will see they have a problem with journalists that will take little to fix. Just respecting the law.

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