Behind Bars  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Behind Bars   

An Iraqi working as a contract photographer for the Associated Press has been held--uncharged--by the U.S. military for seven months. The U.S. says Bilal Hussein has links to terrorists. The outraged AP implores the Pentagon to charge him or free him.

By Charles Layton
Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) is a former editor and reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former AJR senior contributing writer.     


The United States is reported to be holding about 13,000 people in military prisons in Iraq, but only one of them is a Pulitzer Prize winner.

Bilal Hussein is a 35-year-old Sunni Arab and a native of Al-Anbar Province, the largest province in Iraq and, excluding Baghdad, the most violent. On the morning of April 12, United States Marines showed up at Hussein's door in Ramadi, the provincial capital, where he worked as a contract photographer for the Associated Press. He has been a prisoner ever since, first in local custody, then at Abu Ghraib and now at Camp Cropper, just west of Baghdad International Airport. Enclosed by concrete blast walls and ringed with coils of razor wire, Camp Cropper is where U.S. forces keep many of their "high-value detainees."

Since his arrest more than seven months ago, no formal charges have been brought against Bilal Hussein (who is not related to Saddam). The AP has urged military officials to either free him or put him on trial, but so far they have declined. A military spokesman in Iraq told me that three separate panels have been convened to hear the evidence in Hussein's case, and all three concluded that Hussein had "multiple links and prolonged association with al Qaeda members and insurgent propaganda cell leaders." The AP says neither Hussein nor his representatives were allowed to be present at any of these hearings, and Hussein was told about only one of them, long after the fact. To this day, the AP says, he has never had an opportunity to hear the evidence against him. When I asked the military what evidence it had, I was told that most of it is classified.

Tom Curley, the AP's president and CEO, says whenever the military has given specific details, the AP has taken them seriously and tried to investigate. Some of those investigations showed that the claims "were false or total exaggerations," he says. "I have no problem saying the Pentagon lied to us more than once."

Curley and other AP executives say they think Hussein's real crime was taking pictures of insurgents on their own turf or in combat situations--in other words, pictures the military disliked.

"This is about thwarting a journalist from reporting the news," says Curley, in a voice that quivers with anger. "We have seen no fact that diminishes our belief that Bilal Hussein is not guilty of anything except committing journalism."

Western news organizations have increasingly employed Iraqi stringers as the pervasive violence has made it harder for foreigners to move about safely (see "Out of Reach," April/May). Hussein is not the only one of these stringers to be arrested by the U.S. military and accused of being in bed with insurgents. In fact, there is a pattern of such arrests. A CBS cameraman was detained for an entire year before an Iraqi court decided to free him last spring, declaring that the military had no case.

One senses here a sharp disagreement over exactly what constitutes proper journalism. The military does not define it, but in an e-mail to me a spokesperson for Detainee Operations in Iraq said Hussein had "access to insurgent activities outside of the normal scope afforded to journalists." Another e-mail from the same office said Hussein had "crossed the line from journalistic pursuit to complicity" with the insurgents.

The AP argues that the military has no business dictating what is correct journalistic practice. "That's our call, not theirs," says Kathleen Carroll, the AP's executive editor.

Hussein's colleagues fear that his life is in danger so long as he remains in prison. The mere fact of working for a major U.S.-based company would make him a target, but on top of that he is a Sunni publicly accused of sympathizing with Sunni fighters. His continued imprisonment, says Curley, "may be a death sentence for a Sunni being held with a large number of Shia prisoners."

Scott Horton, a New York City attorney hired by the AP to represent Hussein, says Iraqi lawyers helping with the case have been threatened repeatedly. "One of my Iraqi colleagues working on his case was hauled out of his office and executed by a [Shiite] militia unit about two months ago," he says.

John Daniszewski, the AP's international editor, says he was told by Hussein's lawyers that the photographer "was alarmed that he would be tagged as someone working for the West, or that some people might think he was being a stool pigeon."

Santiago Lyon sits at his desk on the 14th floor of the AP's New York headquarters, telling the story of how Hussein first came to work for him and how his pictures became so controversial. Lyon is the AP's director of photography, responsible for hundreds of shooters and photo editors worldwide. He is a veteran AP photographer himself, one whose battle experience includes the 1991 Persian Gulf War as well as conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He was wounded by mortar shrapnel while working in Sarajevo in 1995.

It was on Lyon's watch that the AP won a Pulitzer Prize last year for a collection of 20 photos from Iraq, including one by Hussein that showed insurgent fighters in action on a sidewalk in Fallujah. The picture was shot in November of 2004 as U.S. Marines battled their way into the insurgent-controlled city. The picture shows two fighters operating a mortar while two others man a light machine gun.

Lyon calls the image up on his computer screen. He notes some of its distinctive details--smoke drifting from the barrel of the mortar, which has just popped off a shell, while one of the insurgents jumps back from the explosion. "It's action, it's the moment, it's the fighting!" he says with an editor's pride.

When this picture was made, Hussein had worked for the AP for about two months. Before that, he was a shopkeeper in Fallujah, selling electronic consumer goods--phones, computers and the like. But business prospects were poor. Fallujah, on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, was a seething hotbed of Sunni insurgents. More than 12,000 Marines were occupying the city's outskirts, preparing for a major assault. Anticipating that, most of the city's 300,000 inhabitants had fled or were preparing to do so.

"We had an Egyptian reporter, I believe, who was interested in getting inside of Fallujah to see the situation there," Lyon recalls, "so through one of our drivers in Baghdad we were put in touch with Bilal Hussein, and Bilal served as a guide around the Fallujah area."

As a native, Hussein knew the place well. He was able to show the reporter insurgent military preparations and to help him line up interviews. Hardly any western news organizations had journalists inside the city, and since it was about to become a major battleground, the AP suggested that Hussein, with his excellent access, might want to take some pictures. It brought him to the wire service's Baghdad office, gave him a digital camera, taught him how to use it and explained what kind of pictures the AP was interested in. Hussein also received some instruction in basic journalistic practices and ethics.

This arrangement was not unusual. Because Iraq is too dangerous for Westerners to move about in, the major news organizations have recruited and trained Iraqis to act as their eyes and ears. Lyon says that 75 of the 80 AP people now working in Iraq are Iraqi nationals. The wire service employs about 10 Iraqi photographers such as Hussein in various cities. Five of the 11 AP photographers who contributed to the coverage that won the Pulitzer in 2005 were Iraqis.

Hussein's first published picture was of an insurgent group that claimed to have shot down a drone aircraft. The masked fighters were gathered around the ruins of the drone, celebrating and showing off their prize.

At first, Hussein had to file by giving the memory cards from his camera to a taxi driver to carry back to Baghdad. But as U.S. forces continued their buildup for the assault, the Baghdad bureau decided to give Hussein a laptop computer and a satellite phone so he could transmit images to Baghdad in the event Fallujah was completely cut off. If Hussein wasn't the only journalist filing photos out of Fallujah at that time, he was one of a precious few, and the AP was pleased with his work. "It allowed the AP to show an aspect of the story that was difficult if not impossible to see anywhere else," Lyon says.

In early November of 2004, as the Marines prepared to unleash their big attack, people in the Baghdad bureau grew worried and urged Hussein to get out. Although he sent his parents and brother away to stay with relatives, Hussein himself refused to leave. He wanted to document the coming battle. Since he was not a staff employee, the AP could not order him out, so it told him not to worry about producing and filing photos during the battle, but just to keep himself safe.

Lyon, back in New York, was involved in these deliberations. "I've had many colleagues killed over the years," he says, "and really my worst nightmare..is that one of the people working for me gets killed."

When the assault on Fallujah came, it was as fierce as anticipated, lasting for about a week. There was heavy air bombardment, artillery shelling and then a street-by-street advance by the Marines through the near-emptied city.

"We didn't hear anything from Bilal for a couple of days," Lyon says, "and we began to worry. And then, out of the blue, up pops this incredible series of pictures showing some insurgents inside Fallujah, fighting." One of these was the picture included in the Pulitzer-winning package.

The pictures were exclusive--combat photos from behind enemy lines. Later that day, more pictures came in over the satellite phone.

Then, once more, communications ceased. It was several days before Hussein showed up at the AP bureau in Baghdad, looking haggard and with little more than the shirt on his back. He had escaped Fallujah, he said, by moving from house to house, dodging gunfire and then following the river into the countryside, where a peasant family gave him shelter for two days. Finally, he caught a ride across the Euphrates on a local fisherman's boat, and from there made his way to Baghdad. All of his equipment had been lost, and he said that his house was destroyed. (U.S. Marines later found his sat phone and a camera lens, marked with the AP logo, next to a dead man's body in a house in Hussein's neighborhood.)

Hussein was happy to be alive, and he was soon ready to resume work.

With the situation in Fallujah untenable, the AP reequipped Hussein and sent him to Ramadi, also in Al-Anbar Province, where insurgents were conducting a low-intensity guerrilla war against American troops. This was another spot where access was especially difficult for journalists. Hussein became the AP's only source of images from Ramadi, and one of the very few sources for any media organization. Most of his pictures showed the effects of the war on the civilian population--dead and wounded people, funeral scenes, destruction of cars and buildings.

He worked in Ramadi from early 2005 until April 12 of this year, when he was arrested.

During Hussein's short career as a photojournalist, conservative bloggers in the United States have accused him and other Iraqi photographers of disseminating enemy propaganda. Sirhumphreys.com posted an item last year under the headline "Bilal Hussein colludes with insurgents." It linked to a montage of what it called "Bilal Hussein's more obvious propaganda-type photos." The pictures dealt with insurgents in combat situations.

Other conservative blogs, such as The Belmont Club and Power Line, have made similar charges. Blogger/columnist Michelle Malkin has probably been Hussein's most frequent critic. One set of photos she singled out, taken in December 2004, showed two masked gunmen in a barren desert landscape, standing in dramatic poses over the blindfolded corpse of a man identified as Salvatore Santoro, an Italian citizen, whom they claimed to have just killed. Malkin called them "up-close-and-personal insurgent propaganda photos" which she said had been taken "before, during and after" the man's execution.

Although Malkin didn't mention it, the AP transmitted these photos along with a news story describing the entire incident. The story, which got wide play, especially in Italy, explained that masked insurgents had stopped Hussein and other AP journalists, including a video cameraman, at a roadblock and took them to the site where the blindfolded body lay. It was "already stiff with rigor mortis," the story said. The masked men propped the body up and allowed the journalists to photograph and videotape it. They said they had killed the man because he was trying to run one of their checkpoints.

After the AP won its Pulitzer in the spring of 2005, the bloggers redoubled their complaints. A post on The Jawa Report was headlined: "Pulitzer Prize Given to Terrorists." The post said that two of the honored photos--the one by Hussein showing street fighters in Fallujah and a picture by another Iraqi stringer that showed terrorists murdering an Iraqi election worker on a Baghdad street--were taken "by individuals who saw Geneva Convention crimes and did nothing to stop them. Both photos indicate also that the individuals who took them had prior knowledge to the crimes being committed."

The post went on to complain that the AP's Pulitzer-winning photo package seldom showed Americans in a positive light and that none of the photos showed U.S. troops rebuilding Iraq or playing with kids in the street. Neither did they show "the results of the first democratic election in Iraq" or "the thousands of freed prisoners from Saddam's tyrannical rule."

These criticisms were taking place in a climate of sometimes bitter conflicts between news organizations and the military over coverage of the war. During the past year the Committee to Protect Journalists has documented seven cases of news people in Iraq detained for long periods without charges or adequate disclosure of the evidence against them.

A Reuters photographer and cameraman, Ali al-Mashhadani, was thrown into Abu Ghraib prison last year after U.S. Marines searched his home, grew suspicious of pictures on his cameras and accused him of being a "threat." The Committee to Protect Journalists says the military produced no evidence to justify his detention. Last January, after being held incommunicado for five months, he was released without charges. Then in June, Reuters reported, he was rearrested at a U.S. base in Ramadi, where he had gone to try to recover Reuters cell phones confiscated from him a week earlier. He was held for 10 days on that occasion, then transferred to Baghdad, and then released after two more days. According to Reuters, military interrogators questioned him repeatedly about his work as a journalist.

A military spokesperson in Iraq said al-Mashhadani was detained based on evidence that he "was an imperative threat to security." The spokesperson did not say what that evidence was. He did say al-Mashhadani "was neither held in any special segregation nor incommunicado for five months."

Less fortunate still was Abdul Ameer, a 25-year-old Iraqi cameraman working for CBS, who was held for a year in Abu Ghraib. On April 5, 2005, he had been filming a celebration at a university in the city of Mosul when he heard a car bomb explode. According to reports by CBS, the AP and other news organizations, Ameer said he caught a taxi to the site of the bombing and began videotaping. Suddenly, he said, he felt a pain in his thigh and fell to the ground. He had been shot by an American sniper.

According to Ameer's account, American troops took him to a hospital, but on the way they were yelling at him, calling him a terrorist. "I'm a correspondent," he insisted, but he said they didn't believe him.

After treatment at the hospital, he was put in prison. The military sent an e-mail to CBS' Baghdad bureau, saying Ameer was detained because he "appeared to be instigating a crowd" at the site of the car bombing. The military also accused Ameer of standing next to a man who was waving a gun, and of helping the man to incite violence. Ameer was chanting "God is great!" in celebration of the car bombing, the military said. According to cbsnews.com, the military also said the tape in Ameer's videocamera led them to suspect he had prior knowledge of attacks on American soldiers. And, the same report said, the military suggested that Ameer's videotape "showed four incidents that proved he was involved in insurgent activity."

CBS tried for many months to get access to the specific evidence against Ameer. The network also conducted its own investigation, retracing events and interviewing people who were at the car bomb scene. It said it found no evidence that Ameer had done anything wrong. CBS pleaded with the military to either put him on trial or set him free. "All we are seeking is due process," a network spokesperson explained.

Scott Horton, the lawyer who is defending Bilal Hussein, also defended Ameer. At Abu Ghraib, Horton says, Ameer "was put in solitary confinement at one point for two days and was told, 'You make a confession or you'll be there forever.' " Horton said his interrogators wanted him to confess "that he was an insurgent agent infiltrating this news organization."

Finally, last April, almost exactly one year after his arrest, Ameer was turned over to an Iraqi court for trial. According to an AP story, he could have faced life in prison if convicted.

Horton says the military presented arguments to the Iraqi court to the effect that the rifleman who shot Ameer did so because he saw and heard Ameer inciting the crowd to riot. The marksman even attributed certain words to Ameer, says Horton, "but the marksman was 300 meters away and three stories off the ground, and he was watching all of this through a rifle scope. Which caused the chief judge at the trial to say, when he read this, 'Hmm, quite a scope. It must be a magic scope. Not only does it allow him to hear everything that's being said, it even translates it into English for him.' "

The tape from Ameer's camera turned out to be less than 20 seconds long and showed nothing incriminating. There was no man waving a gun or inciting a crowd. In fact, there was no crowd, just a few people standing around. The tape showed debris in a road, according to a CBS senior vice president, Linda Mason. At one point someone on the tape did say "God is great" ("Allahu akbar," a common Muslim expression), but Mason has said the tone was somber rather than celebratory or provocative.

The court set Ameer free.

When asked for comment on the above account, Lt. Col. Keir-Kevin Curry, chief of public affairs for Task Force 134, the military unit in charge of Ameer's detention, replied in an e-mail that there was "no verifiable record of whether the Chief Judge of the Trial Panel made any remark regarding the veracity of any statement made by a military marksman. Several sworn statements of the marksman made absolutely no mention of hearing any commentary" from Ameer.

The first word of Bilal Hussein's arrest seems to have come from the blog of Michelle Malkin, Hussein's long-time critic. On April 12, she posted an item entitled "Where Is Bilal Hussein?" After telling readers that Hussein's photos "have raised serious, persistent questions about his relationship with terrorists," she wrote that she had just learned of "an intriguing news development that strengthens those lingering suspicions."

An anonymous military source in Iraq, she wrote, had told her Hussein "was captured earlier today by American forces in a building in Ramadi, Iraq, with a cache of weapons." AP officials were outraged that the military had leaked the news about Hussein to one of his worst critics in the blogosphere. When I asked Curley if he thought the Pentagon did this deliberately, for political reasons, he said, "Yes, clearly. Absolutely."

Robert Reid was the chief editor in the AP's Baghdad office at that time. He says his office got its first news of Hussein's arrest not from the military but from one of the AP's print stringers, who was working in Ramadi. Phone connections with Ramadi were down, because terrorists had blown up the phone office, so the stringer had to drive to Baghdad with the news.

At first, Hussein's arrest was not especially alarming. "Just about every news organization has had people picked up at one time or another," Reid says. One reason this happens so often, he says, is that insurgents run their own propaganda operations in Iraq. "They put pictures on the Web. And soldiers are told to beware of people out posing as cameramen, so they tend to view with suspicion Iraqis who show up with cameras at bomb sites."

Usually, though, journalists caught in that situation are released within a few days, after their credentials are checked and their news organizations vouch for them. Reid and Curley both told me that the military initially said it would try to expedite Hussein's case. "But their position is that the more they got into it, the more they believed there were strong suspicions and strong evidence against him," Reid says.

In the weeks and months that followed, the AP and its lawyers say they tried to negotiate with various levels of military authority, both in Washington and in Iraq. In Iraq, they dealt mainly with Task Force 134, which is in overall charge of detainee operations. As negotiations dragged on, Curley says, "At some point a couple of things became clear: The stories we were getting were lies. And their stance was hardening."

Task Force 134 told the AP that Hussein may have assisted a gang of terrorists in a kidnapping plot. In March of this year, two Arab journalists were abducted. Hussein was suspected of collusion because he picked the two men up after they were released.

But when the AP interviewed the two kidnap victims, "they actually laughed at the idea that Bilal had had anything to do with their capture," says Dave Tomlin, the AP's associate general counsel. "They explained to us that when their families paid ransom money and the thugs who were holding them let them go, they were set down in the desert not far from Ramadi with nothing in their pockets but a cell phone. They were scared of being killed or captured by other kidnappers. And so they called a friend or colleague in Baghdad and said, 'Help us.' The friend in Baghdad says, 'I know somebody near there who can help you,' and he called Bilal."

"The kidnap victims saw him as a hero," says Daniszewski, the AP's international editor.

Attorney Horton says he and an Iraqi legal colleague not only interviewed the two kidnap victims but also the man in Baghdad who had received their phone call, as well as people living near the spot where the two were released, who gave them temporary shelter. Horton says none of these people had ever been interviewed by the military.

"From that," says Tomlin, "we've concluded the military really has no interest in investigating any of the allegations made against Bilal. And from that we conclude that the military doesn't really care at this point whether Bilal has done anything wrong or not. They wanted him off the street, and he's off the street."

Carroll says Hussein took some pictures of the kidnap victims. She suspects those pictures may be the military's only evidence because they are the only known public connection among the three men.

At one point during my exchange of e-mails with officers of Task Force 134, I was told that the evidence against Hussein included "kidnapping activities," so I e-mailed back asking if this referred to the kidnapping of the two journalists. Col. Curry replied as follows: "Due to the ongoing investigation in this case, we cannot discuss specific evidence or the process in which the evidence was collected."

The military has also told the AP--and me--that Hussein was arrested in his apartment while having breakfast with a man they consider "a key al Qaeda leader" and with another known insurgent. The military has said it found weapons and bomb-making materials on the premises, but it was never more specific than that.

Editor Reid says many of the home-made bombs in Iraq are fashioned out of "common-use items, many of which can be found in the average Iraqi kitchen. I have never seen the U.S. military break down what kind of bomb-making materials this was. Was it sticks of dynamite? Was it a kitchen timer? Was it ammonia? Who knows?"

A few weeks ago, when I asked the public affairs officers at Task Force 134 to clarify the issue of the cache of weapons and the bomb-making materials, they backed off the accusation altogether. Here is their reply:

"During his capture multiple items of evidentiary value were seized by the capturing unit. Although no weapons were discovered, several items believed to be used in the construction of Improvised Explosive Devices were recovered. The ensuing investigation concluded that the suspected IED materials were not relevant to Mr. Hussein's case."

As for his having breakfast with terrorist types at the time of his arrest, that too may be in doubt. Horton says he believes Hussein would testify in court that other people were picked up that morning, but not in connection with him. Carroll argues that, in any case, the military "doesn't have the right to hold him indefinitely for having breakfast with people they don't like."

She and other AP journalists insist that it is part of Hussein's job to get to know insurgents. Reid, who has wide experience covering the Middle East, says people like Hussein need to maintain contacts with both sides in the conflict "in order to do their jobs and physically survive. Much of Ramadi is in control of the insurgents, and if you're running around with a camera, showing up at bomb sites, just as the Americans are going to be suspicious of that, so are the insurgents."

Lyon, the photo editor, says when he was a combat photographer, he had to cultivate contacts with any number of unsavory people and organizations, such as Salvadoran guerrilla fighters, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Taliban in Afghanistan. "It's not indicative of anything sinister," he says. "It's indicative of thorough journalism to be able to tell more than just one side of the story."

Lyon doesn't think the military understands this. In fact, he says, "it's not clear in my mind if, in their mind, any coverage of the other side of the story is acceptable."

In a radio address in October, President Bush spoke of the "sophisticated propaganda strategy" being employed by terrorists in Iraq.

"They conduct high-profile attacks," the president said, "hoping that the images of violence will demoralize our country and force us to retreat. They carry video cameras and film their atrocities, and broadcast them on the Internet. They e-mail images and video clips to Middle Eastern cable networks like Al Jazeera, and instruct their followers to send the same material to American journalists, authors and opinion leaders."

Months before the president took up this theme, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was using it. In a speech to an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City in August, for instance, Rumsfeld said that insurgents "design attacks and manipulate the media to try to demoralize public opinion" in the United States.

Since he began defending Iraqi journalists imprisoned by the military, attorney Scott Horton has made it his business to track the use of such rhetoric by administration officials. He says he has found at least four or five examples in Rumsfeld's speeches.

"He talks about how they're trying to infiltrate our media and use it for their own propagandistic purposes," Horton says. "Now what I've been told by officers in Baghdad is, the message has gone out that they desperately want Secretary Rumsfeld's poster boy. Where is this guy who's infiltrated the Western media who can be held up as an example? This is the thread that ties a lot of these cases together."

Horton thinks that's what was behind the detention of Abdul Ameer of CBS. Right after his arrest, Horton says, the Pentagon released news of the case in Washington, and several television networks ran stories.

Horton, whose father was an Air Force colonel, says he understands the military's suspicions of Iraqi nationals working for Western news organizations--"particularly when they're in parts of the country that are effectively under the control of insurgents. These people are not likely to be our friends. They may be very close to insurgents."

He also says he understands, from conversations with military authorities, why they dislike some of Bilal Hussein's pictures. In general, he says, they don't like photos of attacks on U.S. soldiers, photos of U.S. soldiers wounded or photos of military equipment destroyed--in short, images that show U.S. forces as vulnerable and under attack. "If you're occupying a country," he says, "you do not want images broadcast all over the place showing you weak and vulnerable."

Horton therefore agrees with AP officials that the real reason Hussein is being held is because of his photos.

People at the AP say believe that the military didn't just stumble upon Hussein in incriminating circumstances; rather, they went hunting for him. "We think he was targeted," Carroll says. "One of our other journalists, who was embedded with the unit that picked him up, said he'd seen a sign on a bulletin board that said Hussein was a terrorist, pick him up." Daniszewski says the reporter saw that notice just a few days before Hussein's arrest.

Daniszewski also says that an AP television cameraman was picked up shortly before Hussein was. This man had the same first name, Bilal, but his second name was different. He was released.

Curley, Carroll and others say they find it suspicious that news of Hussein's arrest was leaked immediately back in the United States. Michelle Malkin had it on her blog, citing a military source, within a few hours. Curley says he suspects that leak came not from Iraq but from Washington, because the Pentagon had a special political interest in the matter.

"We have learned," says Horton, "that the decision to seize Bilal Hussein came not from the local units in Ramadi, but way, way up the chain of command."

When I asked Lt. Col. Curry in Iraq whether Hussein had been specifically targeted because of his photos, he replied that the military could not discuss such matters.

The AP, meanwhile, has done its own investigation of Hussein's photos. Santiago Lyon undertook a review of every image of his in the AP archives--420 pictures. He says he found only 37 showing insurgents or people who could be insurgents. He characterized all of these as resembling "normal imagery from conflict zones around the world."

Only four of Hussein's pictures show the wreckage of still-burning U.S. military vehicles. "If Bilal had inappropriate ties to the insurgency, as the U.S. military insinuates, then you'd expect to see pictures of Humvees flying through the air, or dead and wounded U.S. or Iraqi soldiers," Lyon says. He thinks it's clear from the photos that Hussein wasn't being tipped off in advance about insurgent attacks.

During his investigation, Lyon says, he checked to see who edited any of Hussein's pictures that were related to the insurgency. (He could do this because caption writers are required to put their initials on pictures before they send them, and editors on desks have to add their initials as well.) In each case, he would get on the phone with the editors and have a conversation. "In some cases the editors remembered exactly which photographs I was talking about," he says. "In other cases, I had to sort of jog their memories. And I was trying to determine what the vetting process was for these pictures."

Typically, Lyon says, Hussein would supply barebones information about the pictures he sent to Baghdad. Then the editor on duty would contact Hussein by sat phone to get a better understanding of the circumstances, so he could write an accurate caption. After that, the picture would go to the regional editing hub in London, to be vetted for quality and content. The procedure was that if the editors in London had any doubts about a picture, it was to be forwarded to New York for a final review.

"So when we reviewed all that material," Lyon says, "the conclusion that we drew was that this is an Iraqi journalist telling the story of the effects of this conflict on his people. The insurgency is a component part of that story. But was his focus on the insurgents? No. The numeric evidence says no."

Toward the end of my interview with Lyon, I asked him a simple question:

What if it turns out, after all, that Bilal Hussein is a security threat? What if he does turn out to have nefarious ties to terrorists?

Lyon gave me a simple answer:

"Let's see the evidence. That's all we're asking for, due process."

Senior writer Charles Layton (charlesmary@hotmail.com) wrote about Dean Singleton's acquisition of Knight Ridder's San Francisco-area papers in AJR's June/July issue.

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