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.