Is Obama covering up photos of detainee rapes?

You shouldn't immediately trust everything you read -- at least not in the British press

Topics: Torture, War Room,

On Thursday, the Daily Telegraph published a shocking story: Some of the photos that President Obama abruptly decided to block from public release depict rape and sexual abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs wasn’t buying it. Asked about it at his daily press briefing, he referred reporters to a Pentagon statement denying the story, then added, “If I wanted to read a write-up today of how Manchester United fared last night in the Champion’s League Cup, I might open up a British newspaper. If I was looking for something that bordered on truthful news, I’m not entirely sure it would be the first stack of clips I picked up… I think if you do an even moderate Google search, you’re not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other.”

Attacking the messenger, not the report itself, is often an all-too-convenient out, and sometimes a sign that there is in fact something to the story. But when it comes to the British papers, he’s right: They’re not exactly renowned for a scrupulous devotion to the facts, or really for ever letting them get in the way of a good story.

It seems like that reputation might hold true for this article as well. Over at Time’s Swampland blog, my former colleague Michael Scherer has an excellent post examining — and largely dismissing — the Telegraph’s claims. He points to one recent incident in which the Telegraph got a story about abuse photos very wrong, and never acknowledged the error, and then goes on to write:

It is important to note that rumors of rape photos have been around for years, but there has never been any proof that they exist. The likely source of the rumors is well known, as claims of rape and sexual assault are described in some detail in the military investigations of Abu Ghraib. One detainee, who was interviewed by Army investigators, claimed to have witnessed the rape of a teenage male detainee by a male interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison. He claimed that a female soldier took pictures of the event, but as one Army investigation found in 2004, “no other reporting supports DETAINEE-05′s allegation, nor have photographs of the rape surfaced.” … The President himself has said that the photos are not as explosive as photos that have already been released. “I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib, but they do represent conduct that did not conform with the Army Manual,” Obama said on May 13.

Because of my general skepticism about stories about the U.S. that appear solely in British outlets, I had initially planned not to post on this. But I think it’s worth weighing in because there’s been an uptick in speculation that there are photos — even video — of sexual abuse of detainees out there, and War Room played a large, if inadvertent, role.

A little more than two weeks ago, for reasons I don’t fully understand, a 2004 War Room post, written by Geraldine Sealey (before I was on staff at Salon) suddenly became popular on Digg, which means traffic and lots of discussion on other blogs. The people who Dugg it, and picked it up from the site, apparently believed it contained new allegations, which obviously it does not.

In that post, Sealey reported on allegations Seymour Hersh made in a speech he gave to the ACLU: “Basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has.”

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It has since become clear that what Hersh said was inaccurate. In a 2005 article for New York Magazine in which he slammed Hersh for being careless about the factual basis for things he discussed in his speeches, rather than in his articles, Chris Suellentrop noted that Hersh’s book “Chain of Command” paints a very different picture. It read:

An attorney involved in the case told me in July 2004 that one of the witness statements he had read described the rape of a boy by a foreign contract employee who served as an interpreter at Abu Ghraib. In the statement, which had not been made public, the lawyer told me, a prisoner stated that he was a witness to the rape, and that a woman was taking pictures. The witness further stated, according to the lawyer, that “the kid was making a lot of noise.”

Hersh himself told Suellentrop, “I actually didn’t quite say what I wanted to say correctly. It wasn’t that inaccurate, but it was misstated. The next thing I know, it was all over the blogs. And I just realized then, the power of—and so you have to try and be more careful.”

Update: A few readers have noted in the comments of this post that Scott Horton, in an article for the Daily Beast today, says he’s confirmed the Telegraph’s report with sources of his own. But Horton gets some important assertions wrong, as Scherer has documented in a follow-up post. Horton writes:

A senior military officer familiar with the photos told me that they would likely provoke a storm of outrage if released. The well-informed source confirmed, just as reported in the Telegraph, that many of the photographs are sexually explicit, including those mentioned above. The photographs differ from those already officially released. Some show U.S. personnel engaged in sexual acts with prisoners and each other. In one, a female prisoner appears to have been forced to expose her breasts to be photographed. In another, a prisoner is suspended naked upside down from the top bunk of a bed in a stress position.

As Scherer writes, though, “The images of detainees exposing their breasts and a detainee hanging naked from a bed are also discussed in detail in the Abu Ghraib investigations, which have been released. (News organizations have restrained from publishing the photos of consensual sexual behavior between U.S. soldiers.)”

Later in his article, Horton says, “In one withheld photograph, not previously described, Specialist Charles A. Graner, Jr., an Abu Ghraib guard, is shown suturing the face of a prisoner, a reliable source tells The Daily Beast.”

What Horton appears to be describing is a photo that was, in fact, published by Salon more than three years ago and is still available here. The photo Horton describes in which “a prisoner is suspended naked upside down from the top bunk of a bed in a stress position” was also published by Salon in 2006 — it’s available here. (It is graphic and not safe for work.) That picture was the subject of an earlier Telegraph article which asserted, in error, that it was part of the group of photos Obama had considered for release, and that it had not previously been made public.

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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