[Media-watch] Where was press when 1st Iraq prison allegations arose? - Editor and Publisher - 13 May 2004

Julie-ann Davies jadavies2004 at yahoo.co.uk
Fri May 14 06:02:14 BST 2004

Where Was Press When 1st Iraq Prison Allegations Arose?
November 2003 AP report got little play or followup.

By Greg Mitchell

(May 13, 2004) -- Is the press trying to make up for lost time once again?
The media is now bursting with accounts of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib and
other Iraqi prisons, but where were they last fall when evidence of
wrongdoing started to emerge -- when a public accounting might have halted
what turned out to be the worst of the incidents?

"It was not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from
an official source," Charles J. Hanley, Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent
for The Associated Press, told me this week. Hanley broke big stories on the
accusations of abuse when he returned to Baghdad for his latest tour of
press duty last September. It led to a series of stories, culminating in a
shocking report on Nov. 1, 2003, based on interviews with six released

He is still amazed that apparently no one else was looking into the
allegations, and no major newspaper picked up on his reporting after it
appeared. Why? "That's something you'd have to ask editors at major
newspapers," he said. "But there does seem to be a very strong prejudice
toward investing U.S. official statements with credibility while
disregarding statements from almost any other source -- and in this current
situation, Iraqi sources."

The Hanley stories last fall told of detainees being attacked by dogs,
humiliated by guards and spending days with hoods over their heads, now
familiar images in the American -- and Arab -- mind.

Even after the Pentagon promised an investigation in January, and announced
arrests in March, Hanley was "surprised there was not more interest and
investigative reporting done. It's hard to fault my colleagues in Baghdad
considering the pressure and danger they feel. Many stories are missed -- 
that's the way it is in war. But clearly there is a mindset in the U.S.
media that slows the aggressive pursuit of stories that make the U.S.
military look bad."

Full disclosure: Half a lifetime ago, Charley and I went to j-school
together. He was a year ahead of me.

A partial transcript of our discussion this week:

Q. You had already spent a good deal of time in Iraq before and after the
invasion, breaking some big stories. When did you get involved in the prison

A. Last September I arrived in Baghdad for another tour. What sparked my
interest was an obscure British Web site which cited Amnesty International
saying it had gotten some information about possible abuses.

I set about trying to locate released detainees. I think my first approach
was to defense lawyer types from the Iraqi League of Lawyers. They gave me
some secondhand information. While working on that I talked to the military
officer at the CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] who was responsible for
the prison program. He let out that they had just shut down Camp Cropper at
Baghdad airport, which had the worst reputation for abuse at that time. They
did not announce it, they just told me that in passing. I can only surmise
that they did not want to draw attention to Cropper.

I did that story, on Oct. 5, mainly about the closing of Cropper but also
cited Amnesty's contention about physical abuse and their protests.

Then on Oct. 9, I did a longer piece based mainly on the lawyers and what
they were finding inside. The president of the Lawyers League was a former
political prisoner under the Baathist regime. They had so many families
coming to them saying husbands or sons did nothing, they had been held for
months, and couldn't even find where they were. Only a few of the lawyers
had gotten inside. Of course we now know, from the Red Cross, that a large
percentage of the inmates were mistakenly imprisoned.

Q. What led you to the released detainees?

A. The key was finding the right person at the Iraqi equivalent of the Red
Cross, the Red Crescent Society. Then they began leading me to released
detainees. In the end, with my interpreter, we spoke to six of the former
detainees and they were from all three major camps -- Cropper at the
airport, Bucca in the south and Abu Ghraib. One of them might have been in
all three. We spent hours talking to them.

Q. Why did you think they were credible?

A. First of all, Amnesty and the Red Cross had caught up with released
detainees and they were hearing the same sort of accounts by different
people independently. In fact, I just found out the other day that Amnesty
had a news release last July 23 complaining about living conditions and
reports of torture and ill treatment. Amnesty actually had been raising
questions since June.

Second, the six former detainees all had camp wristbands with their number
and photo right on it.

Nothing like what we found had been published at that time, as I found out
in a check of our database.

After writing the big piece, we held it and presented the U.S. command in
Baghdad with a list of specific questions: Were certain kinds of deprivation
and physical punishment used against detainees, as we were told, and why?
How many deaths had occurred, and what were the circumstances? What types of
weapons were used to put down disturbances? How many cases had there been of
discipline or prosecution because of abuse?

We learned that the MP (military police) brigade had sent responses to the
Baghdad command, but they were never released to us, and there was no
explanation given. Around this time, the MP general, Janis Karpinski, told
an Arab TV interviewer the detainees were treated humanely. We quoted her on

Q. So what happened after your AP story came out on Nov. 1?

A. I was still in Baghdad, so I was not in touch with how much play it got,
but later in November when I came back to New York I found out that the play
was very disappointing. A few papers ran it, like the Tulsa (Okla.) World,
Akron (Ohio) Beacon Journal, and The State (of Columbia, S.C.). It got wide
use in Germany. None of the major U.S. newspapers published the story. And I
was surprised to see that none of them followed up.

Q. Why do you think no one else jumped on it?

A. One reason is simple and practical -- it's a difficult story to get in a
chaotic city like Baghdad. Although, in the end, simply realizing that the
Red Crescent Society was the Red Cross liaison could have occurred to

But the other thing is, there was no official structure to the story. It was
not an officially sanctioned story that begins with a handout from an
official source. A handout from CPA eventually happened in January but even
after that there was not much pursuit.

The story did not pop out at everybody. But there was a lot going on
elsewhere. Clearly there is a lot of indiscriminate killing going on in Iraq
in general and there's little focus on that. It's not like the only human
rights story is behind the walls. But the one behind the walls is toughest
to get out.

It's hard to fault my colleagues in Baghdad, considering the pressure and
danger there. Many stories are missed -- that's the way it is in war. But
clearly there is a mindset in the U.S. media that slows the aggressive
pursuit of stories that make the U.S. military look bad.

Q. Why didn't more papers just run your story, when it was handed to them,

A. That's something you'd have to ask editors at major newspapers. But I do
think there's often disproportionate weight of credibility given to the
statements of U.S. officials. There seems to be a tendency at times to
discount the statements of others -- people like Iraqi former detainees -- 
if they're not somehow supported by a U.S. source, or perhaps by

The greatest fall down in connection with Iraq in the media, of course, was
the uncritical and often ignorant swallowing of claims about weapons of mass
destruction presented by often unidentified sources.

Q. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said this week the military, not the
media, reported the Abu Ghraib abuses.

A. This is strictly correct if you're talking about the specific abuses
shown in some of the photos. But the AP provided specifics on other abuses
throughout the system many months earlier and at the time was unable to get
the U.S. military command to comment on them. Internally there was some
oversight going on but certainly no public acknowledgement of the abuses
reported by AP.

Q. And there could have been a military whitewash -- it's amazing that
nothing seems to happen unless someone from within the ranks, as in this
case, raises a ruckus.

A. A PFC (private first class) complaining anonymously does not generally
get the ball rolling, but in this case a mid-level officer took it seriously
and presumably found an ally at a higher rank.

Q. What do you think will happen now?

A. My gut tells me the story will spread outward to Guantanamo and
Afghanistan and to other prisons in Iraq. I guess it already is.

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