By: Greg Mitchell
At a panel discussion sponsored by the Museum of Television in Radio last week in New York, sparks flew over the controversial ? and continued ? detention of Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein by the U.S. military. Joining the discussion ? from the audience ? was Tom Curley, the AP president and CEO.
One of the panelists at the April 16 event (which has drawn no attention until now) was longtime Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who has long defended the detention of Hussein more than a year ago, despite protests by the AP and others who have asserted that the award-winning Iraqi photographer was not tied to insurgents — and pointed that no charges have been brought against him.
A panelist, Eason Jordan, formerly an executive with CNN and now co-director of the IraqSlogger web site, raised the issue of Hussein briefly, saying, ?If guilty, string him up, but do not hold him for a year and not charge him?.Not one journalist held by U.S. has ever been charged.?
When the floor was opened to questions, the first one, from Joel Simon, director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, concerned Hussein. Whitman claimed that he would not speak about any specific case. But he did strongly suggest that there were many cases where news organizations hired stringers or ?indigenous? personnel who were not who they said they were — and had “advance” notice of insurgent activity. He said they had to be ?removed? from the battlefield since they posed a threat to U.S. forces.
This cause some in the crowd to shout out angrily. Moderator Geneva Overholser called on Curley in the audience.
?I do not want to leave the impression of Bilal Hussein that is anything less than accurate,? Curley said, as recorded by a video of the event. ?He was arrested on April 12  and the last time he was interviewed was last May.?
He added: ?But this is not about Bilal Hussein. He is an innocent victim. It is about the Associated Press. We are the target. Freedom of the press is the target.? He said that ?where journalists are being picked up is in Anbar province. There has been an extreme effort to shut down coverage from an out-of-control place. That is what the facts show.?
Curley said that when Whitman arranged a review of the nine original charges in the case, they eliminated seven, and the other two are simply ?nonsense.?
He closed: ?We have fired others who have worked for us. When Bilal Hussein gets out of jail he will continue to work for The Associated Press.
“We have reviewed everything about him, we stand by him ? and his work speaks for itself.?
This brought loud applause from the audience.
Another audience member, a veteran of covering the war in Baghdad, followed by taking issue with Whitman?s description of news organizations there cavalierly sending their Iraqi staffers out into ?harm?s way? just to get sensational scoops. He had also painted a rather sunny picture of the Iraqis, who allegedly consider working with the U.S. media in covering the carnage the “opportunity of a lifetime. The audience member said the news bureaus actually develop strong relationships with the staffers and are well aware that nearly all of them have lost family members in the war — and are extremely concerned about their safety.
Back on his heels, Whitman then admitted that he didn?t want people to “walk away” thinking that he thought that a lot of ?bad people? were getting hired over there. Adjusting his earlier remarks, he said such cases were ?few and far between,? but added that ?inevitably? this would happen and ?they will be taken off the battlefield.? He complained that when someone is detained ?the default position” from the press “is, they are innocent — and I?m sorry they are not all innocent.?