Since the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph published their first error-filled stories last week about withheld torture photos, there's been a gradual festering that finally erupted in the past two days.
I was personally suspicious after reading the Telegraph's May 15 story last week claiming that the Australian channel SBS had shown previously unshown photos. When I saw the photo included with the Telegraph's story that was first posted in this regard, it rang a bell. Sure enough, a few minutes on the Google proved to me that it was identical to one of the 15 shown by SBS in February 2006. A naked, hooded prisoner, hanging upside down from an equally naked bunk-bed frame. Only the manner in which his genitals were censored was different. You can see the Telegraph's version here and SBS's via the BBC here. Here's an archive of all the SBS photos from 2006 if you have the stomach for it.
Having my skepticism all but confirmed by this, I took out my trusty phone card and called SBS. It was the weekend in Australia, so I couldn't get the boss. But, I was told by a staffer of the program "Dateline" that contrary to the Telegraph's claims, the station had not shown any photos the night before the newspaper's story was published that had not previously been shown in 2006.
So, when the latest Telegraph story appeared, I was more than a little skeptical. The paper's quotation of General Antonio Taguba, whom I greatly respect, didn't undermine that skepticism because it was unclear that the photos he was referencing were the ones the Telegraph was referencing.
I'm not going to reprise all the ins and outs of the situation. Numerous diaries and counter-diaries have already been written here, and similar material can be found across wwwLand and in the traditional media. Accusations and claims - some of them reasonable, some of them outrageous, some of them partisan, some of them suspicious - have been made. There is no point in repeating all of that. Instead let me focus on how to resolve this mess.
The entire imbroglio stems from the administration's decision not to release 44 photographs to the ACLU, which has - and they deserve our undying thanks for this - sought for six years to acquire ALL documents, photos and videos of torture and abuse at ALL prisons (known and secret) used to house terror suspects. Not for purposes of some voyeuristic desire to watch torture porn, but to build cases against torturers and those who ordered torture.
But, as we have seen in the shitstorm that has emerged, we are now at the stage of not knowing which photographs are being talked about because neither the media nor public officials are being specific. And that lack of specificity naturally gives rise to skepticism about newspapers and government officials alike:
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Telegraph had shown "an inability to get the facts right."
"That news organization has completely mischaracterized the images," he told reporters. "None of the photos in question depict the images that are described in that article."
Are "the photos in question" the 44 photos that the Obama administration is now going to the Supreme Court to block the release of? Or are they the 2000 photos that General David Petraeus had previously said might as well be released? If they are the 44 photos - 21 directly related and 23 that are considered "responsive" to the ACLU's FOIA request - then there is good reason to believe that no rapes are shown in them. Because those photos are NOT from Abu Ghraib. And the rape photos, if they exist, are, apparently, from Abu Ghraib.
But because "the photos in question" is an unclear statement, and because the Telegraph, other media, and many observers have conflated the 44 photos with the 2000 photos, the administration's response has been decidedly fuzzy. And, therefore, subject to all the speculation we've seen.
It is not hard to understand how people hearing the Pentagon's non-specific statement in this regard have come to conclude that what is being said is that there are NO rape photos at all, not merely that there are none in the ACLU's request. This, of course, goes against what General Taguba has said and what Sy Hersh reported more than four years ago.
For those led to believe Whitman's statement refers to all 2000 photos, "not these photos" sounds as if it could be a dodge. Thus if photos depicting what Taguba and Hersh have claimed to exist later appear, the Pentagon would be able to say, "we were talking about these photos, we weren't talking about those photos."
This is not to say that the administration is parsing matters in that way. There is good reason to believe that the Pentagon and Press Secretary Gibbs are, in fact, talking about the 44 photos in the ACLU request that the district judge order released. But because the 44 and the 2000 have all been called "the photos" and "the photos in question" by various sources, some clarification is required to unfuzz the situation.
There is an easy way to clear things up.
The administration - Gibbs, Whitman, Bob Gates, President Obama himself - could state clearly that the photos that the President said were not particularly sensationalist (in light of the horrible photos we've already seen) are the ACLU-sought photos. And that no rape or simulated rape is shown in them. They can make clear that they weren't talking about all 2000 photos.
Or, if they were talking about all 2000 when they made their statement about the Telegraph mischaracterizing what's in them, they could say that none of those 2000 photographs show what Taguba and Hersh have claimed they show: rape and other abuse that goes beyond what we've already seen.
Two or three sentences of clarification from the administration could end this discussion and we could all get back to going after Torturer-in-Chief Dick Cheney and his minions.