The wrong man

A week after the New York Times identified a human rights advocate as the iconic hooded figure at Abu Ghraib, the paper admits it made a mistake.


Michael Scherer
March 18, 2006 10:30PM (UTC)

The New York Times admitted Saturday to wrongly identifying the man in one of the most iconic photographs of abuse from the Abu Ghraib prison, after Salon presented evidence that the paper had made a mistake.

On March 11, the Times claimed in a Page One story that Ali Shalal Qaissi, a former Baath Party member, had been photographed in a picture of a hooded detainee, standing on a cardboard box, with his arms spread, a blanket around his shoulders and electrical wires extending from his hands.

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One week later, after further investigation by the Times and Salon, the newspaper reported in a Page One follow-up that Qaissi acknowledged he was not the man in that particular photo. "The Times did not adequately research Mr. Qaissi's insistence that he was the man in the photograph," the Times editors wrote in a separate note to readers.

Among other mistakes, the Times editors said they had mischaracterized the certainty of human rights workers who believed Qaissi may have appeared in the photo, failed to review public records identifying the man on the box with wires, and failed to pursue adequately a substantive comment from the military.

Though apparently solving the mystery of a single photo, the Times retraction left unaddressed several questions about Qaissi's original account to the newspaper. In particular, Army investigations and statements by military police still contradict Qaissi's original description of being given electric shocks. Army documents obtained by Salon also contradict his descriptions, as reported in the Times last week, of the names of other detainees photographed at Abu Ghraib.

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On Tuesday, Salon published 279 photos and 19 videos of abuse at Abu Ghraib, along with nine essays explaining the back story of abuse. These documents were obtained last month by Salon's investigative reporter Mark Benjamin from a uniformed member of the military who spent time at Abu Ghraib and is familiar with the criminal investigation.

After alerting the Times Monday about the paper's error, Salon worked with a Times reporter in Dubai and an editor in New York as they reviewed their original story on Qaissi. Salon shared photographs and sources with the Times in an effort to shed light on Qaissi's experience at Abu Ghraib.

The Army records obtained by Salon strongly suggest that Qaissi was a detainee at Abu Ghraib on the night of Nov. 4, 2003, when another detainee, named Saad, was photographed on a cardboard box, with electrical wires on his hands. Military police at the prison knew Saad by his nickname "Gilligan."

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At the time of the abuse, multiple digital cameras owned by military police photographed another man, nicknamed "The Claw," who had a deformed hand that matches the description of Qaissi. During the same two-hour period, those same cameras were used to photograph "Gilligan" on a box with electrical wires extending from his hands, according to the Army reports. (All the photos in question can be seen here.)

The Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID) concluded that the five photographs of the man on the box with electrical wires all showed "the same incident" with a single hooded victim, a claim that was supported by the statements of several military police at the prison. Nonetheless, Qaissi and his attorney, Susan Burke of Burke Pyle LLC, still believe that Qaissi, who is also known as Haj Ali, may be in one or more of these photos.

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"We know the Abu Ghraib torturers tied wires to Haj Ali's hands, placed him on a box, and sent electricity through his body," Burke told Salon in a statement, adding that she had sources for this account other than Qaissi. "The Abu Ghraib torturers are telling Salon that they never used electricity and photographed only the man nicknamed Gilligan, not the man nicknamed 'the Claw.' We do not trust the torturers."

The Times said on Saturday that Qaissi still maintains that he was forced to stand on a box, forced to wear a blanket, attached to wires and given electric shocks. An analysis of the photographs obtained by Salon cast doubt on his claim that he can be seen in any of the five photographs.

In particular, a close-up photograph of "The Claw's" deformed left hand taken on the night of Nov. 4 shows a scar on the back of his palm, a white bracelet and an overgrown thumbnail. Two side pictures of the man attached to the wires, taken just minutes earlier according to CID, show a closely cropped thumbnail, no bracelet and no apparent scar. The other three pictures of a man on the box, including the one that Qaissi has claimed is not him, were taken by two different cameras in the same room within minutes of each other, according to CID. They show no clear evidence of a deformed left hand.

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Before the Times story, Vanity Fair, the PBS program "NOW," and the German magazine Der Spiegel ran stories describing Qaissi's account of abuse with electrical wires. (In October 2005, Salon reprinted the Der Spiegel story.) But two freelance reporters contacted Salon this week to express surprise at Qaissi's account in the Times. Both said they had interviewed Qaissi extensively in 2004 and that he had not mentioned his abuse with electrical wires or his appearance in the iconic photograph.

" What I can tell you definitely is that he never mentioned being the hooded prisoner, and we're talking three separate interviews of several hours each time during which he went over his experiences in Abu Ghraib in great detail, almost day by day," journalist Gert Van Langendonck told Salon in an e-mail.

On Saturday, the Times reported that in the spring of 2004 Qaissi approached Mohammad Hamid al-Moussawi, the deputy director of the Human Rights Organization of Iraq, with an idea for setting up an advocacy group for victims of American detention. Moussawi told the Times that Qaissi did not initially claim to be in the photo of a man on the box with wires.

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Photographs recovered from Abu Ghraib show that the detainee known as "The Claw" was hooded and forced to kneel in painful positions. His disabled hand was mocked by prison guards.

It also remains possible that photographic evidence of Qaissi's abuse with wires has not been recovered. In an e-mail to Salon this week, Qaissi reaffirmed his earlier claims, saying he was confident of his memories of electrical torture, claims that have not been confirmed by any other evidence. "I was there," he wrote to Salon. "I will never forget what I went through. Please understand my pain."

On his business card, Qaissi still displays a photograph of a hooded man on a box, electrical wires extending from his hands.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

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Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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