Interviews with AP executives on the Bilal Hussein travesty

The case of the AP photojournalist detained for 19 months by the U.S. military gets worse and worse.

Published November 20, 2007 3:21PM (EST)

(updated below)

Bilal Hussein is the AP photojournalist in Iraq who was detained by the U.S. military in April, 2006 and has been imprisoned ever since without charges of any kind. I wrote about the case previously, among other places, here and here. He is one of 24,000 people being held in Iraq without charges. Yesterday, the U.S. military -- which refused for 19 months to charge him with any crime -- suddenly announced that they were now recommending that he be tried on unspecified charges in an Iraqi court based on allegedly "irrefutable evidence" they now possess.

This morning I interviewed AP's Executive Editor, Kathleen Carroll, and AP's CEO Tom Curley regarding this case. Neither of them still have any idea what the charges are against Hussein, nor what the supposed new and "irrefutable" evidence is of his guilt. Worse, because 19 months have elapsed since he was detained, it is virtually impossible to conduct a meaningful investigation or to mount a defense. As Curley explained:

He has never been charged with any crime. There have been allegations made against him, and the allegations made against him in the past have been disproven by us after careful investigation.

Second, nobody from the U.S. military interrogated him from May 2006 until a couple of weeks ago. So he went about 18 months without having any value to the U.S. military. Under no circumstances can we imagine that there are new charges that have been made against him. They have not worked on the case. The people who initially detained him, the people who have initially interrogated him, are long since gone. This makes no sense at all. This is truly an abuse of the justice system.

It is so vital to realize the direct connection between Hussein's war journalism and the lawless detention of him by the U.S. military for almost two years. Hussein's photographs helped earn AP the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for its war coverage in Iraq. As Carroll explained:

Bilal began to work for AP in his hometown of Fallujah, in the month leading up to the U.S. military assault on Fallujah in 2004. He took pictures under the direction of an experienced combat photographer and photo editor based in Baghdad, and his assignment was to take pictures showing what it's like to be in Fallujah, and how people were preparing. As there were insurgent attacks, he would take pictures of the aftermath, how people were affected, grieving families, charred cars, expressions of unhappiness about the attacks and daily life in Fallujah.

But Hussein's photographs directly contradicted the claims being made at the time by the U.S. military regarding Anbar. As Curley said:

Bilal Hussein was operating in Anbar Province. Anbar was a black hole in the coverage of Iraq. For most of the war, there have been virtually no journalists there or very few journalists, so getting any information from Anbar was difficult.

These pictures came at a time when the U.S. was trying to say that things were OK, and we know now that they were deteriorating.

The photographs taken by Hussein, and published by AP, demonstrated that things were anything but calm in Anbar.

One aspect that has always been so striking and disturbing about this case is that long before Hussein was detained by the U.S. military, he was the target of constant accusations from right-wing bloggers such as Michelle Malkin and Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs that he was in cahoots with the insurgents. To make these accusations, some would literally outright lie, such as by claiming that a photograph Hussein took of insurgents holding up a corpse of a dead hostage was, in fact, a photograph of the hostage right before he was killed (thus "proving" that Hussein was working with the insurgents).

To this day, completely reckless bloggers like Powerline's John Hinderaker insinuate that Hussein took photographs of the hostage immediately before his death, even though -- as Carroll said -- videotape proves that the photograph taken was of the corpse of the hostage after he was already dead. As was common for Iraq, Hussein and other journalists were forced by the insurgents at gunpoint to take the photograph of the corpse.

Indeed, of the more than 900 photographs Hussein took for AP, a grand total of 4 even include in-progress insurgent action. Although right-wing bloggers far from the war would have no idea about this, it was hardly uncommon in war-torn Anbar to see insurgents in action. Taking photographs of ongoing insurgent action in Iraq -- which is, in any event, newsworthy -- is hardly proof that someone is working in cahoots with them.

But those are the type of hysterical accusations that have spewed forth against Hussein because, as Greg Sargent documented yesterday, the right-wing blogospheric lynch mob -- long obsessed with punishing any journalists who report information that reflects poorly on the Leader's War -- has made persecuting Hussein based on outright lies to be one of their most impassioned causes.

Even worse, when Bilal Hussein was first detained, nobody had any idea what happened to him. As Michelle Malkin boasted yesterday, she was the one who "broke" the story of his detention, by which she means that someone in the U.S. military told her -- before anything was said to A.P. or anyone else -- the news that he had been detained. As AP's Curley said:

Someone leaked information to her at about the time [Hussein's] brother arrived at our A.P. bureau and told us he was detained. So somebody did give her information, and it does further politicize anything that can be said against him.

Carroll described the grave danger Iraqis such as Hussein face who work for news organizations in Iraq. Six separate Iraqi journalists working for AP have been murdered during the war, more than any other war in AP's 160 year history. It has been confirmed that at least 3 were murdered specifically because they worked with AP. Carroll expressed particular anger towards right-wing bloggers and others who have baselessly attacked the integrity of AP's Iraqi journalists while, as she put it, the accusing bloggers are "safely ensconced far away from the action."

But more important still is how threatening and chilling this behavior is. Carroll explained that ever since Hussein was detained, AP -- for obvious reasons -- has had great difficulty finding Iraqis in Anbar to work with them, due to fears that they will be arrested the way Hussein was. She indicated that other news organizations are having the same difficulty. When the U.S. military sufficiently intimidates journalists from reporting on wars, then one must increasingly rely for news upon the government and the military, or upon journalists who are reporting in a way that is pleasing to those authorities.

Carroll pointed out that Hussein is but one of 24,000 individuals being held by the U.S. military without charges in Iraq. But there are obviously unique dangers when the U.S. military arrests journalists in a war zone and then holds them for almost two years with no charges. And Hussein is by no means the only journalist so held by our government.

This is plainly part of the ever-increasing politicization of the U.S. military in Iraq and the attempt to control the flow of information from the war zone. Just was true with the TNR/Beauchamp case and so many others, right-wing bloggers, and then their allies in the U.S. military, became furious with AP and Hussein for depicting the war in less than ideal terms, i.e., contrary to how the U.S. military wants to paint it. They think that any news that reflects badly on the war is treasonous and criminal. That's because they are hostile to the very notion of free journalism. As Carroll put it:

AP feels its obligations is to cover all sides of any conflict . . . . The Iraqi people have felt the bitter impact of fighting all over the country. There's not one bad guy for them. The sorrow for them is that daily life, going to the market, lining up for a job, this week sending your children out to receive toys, can turn deadly. We have a solemn obligation to report that.

The travesty of the Bilal Hussein case is manifold. While we preach to the world how we are bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq, we are arresting their journalists and holding them indefinitely with no charges. If Bilal Hussein were really guilty of working in tandem with insurgents, he could have and should have been tried long ago.

Instead, our military copies the practices of Saddam Hussein by detaining and imprisoning people with no charges, thereby intimidating Iraqis out of reporting on what they see. To control the flow of information, the U.S. military works hand-in-hand with extremist war-cheerleading bloggers here -- feeding them biased and one-sided tidbits -- while denying our news organizations any information about what is being done to their journalists. And while AP has been commendably vigilant in defending the rights of their journalists, most of our largest news organizations have been strangely passive in the face of this assault.

UPDATE: From the Committee to Protect Journalists, today:

Hussein's detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists -- mostly Iraqis -- have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction.

In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents.

In a rational world, one would expect newspapers such as, say, oh . . . The Washington Post and The New York Times to be reporting and editorializing rather strenuously against this conduct. But from what I can tell (and recall), the Post has never editorialized at all about the Bilal Hussein case, and only ever mentioned him by publishing the AP account of yesterday's announcement from the Pentagon. The Times has at least mentioned him in passing in one 2006 Editorial, and Bob Herbert wrote a quite good column on Hussein last year.

The Post has, however, published at least two photographs taken by Hussein in 2004 and 2005 -- one showing a young girl severely wounded by a U.S. airstrike in Fallujah, the other showing an Iraqi family searched by U.S. troops in Ramadi. That work typified Hussein's photojournalism before he was imprisoned by the U.S. military.

By Glenn Greenwald

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