Accuracy in Media

The Abu Ghraib detainee-abuse scandal has the potential, if the media don’t show some self-restraint, to undermine the U.S. and coalition efforts to complete the successful liberation of Iraq. The reporting has fueled the rage, leading the opponents of the war, and the opponents of President Bush, to smell blood in the water. It is repeatedly being charged that Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the Pentagon, had kept this story hidden from Congress and the President until CBS came into possession of the first set of photos of the harassment and humiliation of the detainees. But there is a paper trail, and it shows something very different. It shows that some in the media were aware of the problem and the efforts by the Pentagon to solve it. 

In fact, there have been numerous reports about this since January, but no one saw it as a scandal. Instead, it was a developing story. For example, on January 17, Rehema Ellis on NBC’s Saturday Today show reported that, “The U.S. military has called for an investigation into reports of abuse on Iraqi prisoners in that country.” Notice that the U.S. military was calling for the probe.

One reporter who has stayed on this story is CNN’s Barbara Starr. On January 21, Starr reported that “Sources have revealed new details for the Army’s criminal investigation into reports of abuse of Iraqi detainees, including the location of the suspected crimes and evidence that is being sought. U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners, a Pentagon official told CNN?a senior Pentagon official said the investigation is focused on Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad?The official underscored what others in the Pentagon and Baghdad have said in recent days, which is that the matter is considered serious?The investigation has drawn attention in the military since it came to light January 16. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been briefed on the investigation, officials said?The official described [Lt. Gen. Ricardo] Sanchez as ‘plunging in’ when he learned of the matter.”

So Rumsfeld and the top brass has been on top of the matter all along. 

On March 20, Starr reported the following: “Six U.S. soldiers have been charged with offenses related to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at an Iraqi prison, the U.S. Army said Saturday. The soldiers are charged with assault, dereliction of duty, cruelty and maltreatment, conspiracy and indecent acts with another, U.S. Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said. All of the military personnel are believed to be members of the 800th Military Police Brigade, which until recently guarded Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison. The soldiers, charged with violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice, have been suspended from duty since the investigation began. Multiple sources said the allegations involve soldiers who took photographs of Iraqi prisoners in late 2003, including pictures that show the prisoners partially clothed or physical contact between soldiers and detainees.”

Similar stories appeared on March 21 in the New York Times (page A 9) and the Washington Post (page A 20), detailing the criminal charges against the men, and updating the status of the investigation.

Clearly this story was in the public domain, but not given a high priority by anyone except, perhaps, the military, which was carrying out an internal investigation while proceeding with criminal charges, reprimands and suspensions. It wasn’t until General Antonio Taguba’s report on the findings of his investigation was seen by Seymour Hersh, the intrepid reporter of My Lai fame, and the shocking photos were seen on CBS’s Sixty Minutes II on April 28, that the story became red hot and the accusations began to fly. It then became a “scandal” and it was unfairly claimed that Rumsfeld and the military had been orchestrating a cover-up.

Salameh Nematt, the managing editor of Al Hayat, an international Arab newspaper, said on The O’Reilly Factor that Arab media is inciting anti-American feelings in the Arab world. He said that the media are proxies for their non-democratic governments, pointing out that none of the Arab leaders had openly condemned the Abu Ghraib situation, because it would be so obviously hypocritical, though their state-run media organs certainly had. He said that as long as the Arab media don’t go after their own government leaders, they are given the freedom to attack the U.S.

Clearly much of what went on in Abu Ghraib was wrong, stupid and counterproductive. The apologies from Bush and Rumsfeld reflect the higher standard to which America holds itself. Equally significant, the Taguba reports reveal that many of these detainees who were abused and humiliated were some of the worst prisoners. Some had started riots and even attacked the guards with rocks and feces. While not justifying the brutality displayed by American soldiers, it may help to understand how this might have happened. Plus, it can’t be forgotten that the prisoners were being interrogated so that information could be obtained which could save American soldiers’ lives. The interrogation methods were harsh and extreme, but they don’t compare to Saddam’s torture methods?cutting off hands and fingers, and real?not fake?electric shock treatments.   

The Wall Street Journal has detailed the investigations that are taking place and notes that no one is trying to cover this up. “To start impugning the entire Army and Pentagon, however, is both wrong and dangerous. The majority of American soldiers are professional, disciplined and are risking their lives to win a war.” It would be helpful if more reporters made this simple, basic and factual point.

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