By: Greg Mitchell
Four years ago this month, as May unfolded, each day brought fresh horrors, images, or details about the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in Iraq. Pictures of shackled and hooded prisoners gave way to detainees on leashes, cowering before snarling dogs, or just plain beaten and bruised.
On May 10, 2004, an Iraqi human rights official charged that American overseer Paul Bremer had been repeatedly informed about abuses at Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker revealed that Donald Rumsfeld personally okayed a set of procedures that led to the abuses. Several major newspapers called for Rumsfeld to quit.
At that time, in a column, I disclosed how Pulitzer-winning correspondent Charles J. Hanley at The Associated Press had actually ?broken? the Abu Ghraib story months before it came out via The New Yorker and other outlets?but the rest of the media had paid it little mind. This led me to ask,
Is the press trying to make up for lost time once again?
The media was now bursting with accounts of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons, but where were they the previous 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,? Hanley told me.
Hanley started looking into accusations of abuse when he returned to Baghdad for his latest tour of press duty (he had earlier broken several key stories and worked on AP’s early revelations about heavy civilian casualties). It led to a series of pieces, culminating in a shocking report on Nov. 1, 2003, based on interviews with six released detainees.
He was still amazed that apparently no one else quickly looked 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 that 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. The greatest fall down, of course, was the uncritical and often ignorant swallowing of claims about weapons of mass destruction presented by often unidentified sources.?
A partial transcript of our discussion in May 2004 follows (from my new book on Iraq and the media, see below).
When did you get involved in the prison angle?
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.
What led you to the released detainees?
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. 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 that.
So what happened after your AP story came out on Nov. 1?
The play was very disappointing. A few papers ran it, like the Tulsa World and Akron Beacon Journal. 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.
Why do you think no one else jumped on it?
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 others. 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.
Why didn?t more papers just run your story, when it was handed to them, then?
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 photographs.
Rumsfeld said this week the military, not the media, reported the Abu Ghraib abuses.
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.
What do you think will happen now?
My gut tells me the story will spread outward to Guantanamo and Afghanistan and to other prisons in Iraq. I guess it already is.
Greg Mitchell’s new book “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits–and the President–Failed on Iraq” explores this and other issues related to the war. It includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen and a foreword by Joseph L. Galloway.