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From AJR,   June/July 2007  issue

Locked in Limbo   

August/September Preview » An Associated Press contract photographer has been incarcerated in Iraq by the U.S.—but not charged—since April 12, 2006.


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.     

Fifteen months after arresting Bilal Hussein, a contract photographer for the Associated Press, the U.S. military still hasn't filed charges against him or made public its evidence.

Pentagon spokespeople say his case has been formally reviewed five times--most recently on April 15--and that the evidence shows he has links to insurgent activity in Iraq. Each review was conducted in secret, with neither Hussein nor his AP lawyers permitted to attend.

Both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have complained of the United States' failure either to give Hussein, a 36-year-old Iraqi citizen, his day in court or release him. The president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors has signed a letter demanding his release. But the Pentagon has not relented. Although it has dropped some specific accusations during the past year, it has never departed from its basic assertion--which the AP vehemently rejects--that Hussein is an enemy collaborator.

Although the U.S. military has no plans to adjudicate the case, the public affairs officer for detainee operations in Iraq, Navy Capt. John Fleming, tells AJR that Hussein might soon be tried by the Central Criminal Court of Iraq to determine whether he has violated Iraqi law. Such criminal proceedings by a civilian court would be "in addition to and parallel to" the military's treatment of Hussein as a security internee, Fleming says, and not all the evidence held by the military would be released to the Iraqi court.

It was Wednesday morning, April 12, 2006, when U.S. Marines showed up at Hussein's door in Ramadi and hauled him in. For most of the time since then, he has been held at Camp Cropper, the same high-security prison where Saddam Hussein (no relation) was held before going to the gallows.

Shortly after his arrest, officials said Hussein had a cache of weapons in his possession, but last fall, when AJR asked for specifics, military press officers in Iraq backed off that claim. They said no such weapons had been found. (See "Behind Bars," December 2006/January 2007.)

The military also said that Hussein possessed materials that could be used to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs). But again, when pressed, public affairs officers retracted the statement. "[T]he suspected IED materials were not relevant to Mr. Hussein's case," they told me in an e-mail last October.

After many months of negotiation between the wire service and the military, AP President and CEO Tom Curley says the Pentagon gave him "a classified review of the facts." According to Curley, there had once been nine different allegations against Hussein. Now, he says, all but two have been eliminated, and the remaining two "are nonsense."

When AJR asked Pentagon officials about the two charges, Fleming sent this reply:

"Bilal Hussein had foreknowledge of an Improvised Explosive Devise (IED) attack on Coalition and Iraqi Forces. Bilal Hussein was standing next to the IED triggerman and conspired with the IED triggerman to synchronize his photograph with the explosion. Additionally, Bilal Hussein volunteered knowingly and willingly to provide a false Iraqi National Identification Card to a known insurgent sniper whom he knew was wanted by Coalition Forces in order to elude capture."

Fleming says much of the supporting evidence for these allegations is classified.

Kathleen Carroll, the AP's executive editor, says the wire service examined every image Hussein ever filed---some 900 in all--looking for one that was synchronized with an explosion. "Wouldn't you think you would see bright flames, big Bruce Willis-type fireballs, cars flying through the air? There's nothing like that," she says. "Most of the photos were taken long after the event. Even the pictures that have some flame in them, it's dying flame, not first burst. Where do you get synchronized explosions from those pictures?"

As for the allegation about the fake ID, she says the military has provided no evidence to support it, and the AP doesn't think it "has any more merit than any of the others that have come and gone during the course of Bilal's 15-month imprisonment." In Iraq, she says, people routinely carry multiple identification papers. "It's a safety issue. When you are stopped by someone, do you pull out your Sunni ID or your Shia ID? You can buy a fake ID at the bazaar. They're easy to get and there shouldn't be that big a deal. There's no espionage about this. It's a tool for survival."

The bitterness of the AP's standoff with the Pentagon flared into open view April 16 during a panel on war coverage at the Paley Center for Media in New York. Along with several journalists, the panelists included Bryan G. Whitman, a senior spokesman for the Defense Department. When asked about Hussein's case, Whitman declined to talk specifics, but said:

"It is interesting to me that I have never met a news organization that has hired a bad employee. The United States military hires indigenous people all the time. We have more vetting resources..than any news organization has, and we find ourselves employing people that are not who they say they really are when we hire them. It happens."

Whitman also criticized the manner in which Iraqi stringers are used to cover the war. The news organizations "ask them to go out and do reporting," he said, "and when they go out and they bring back civil-military-works-construction projects--the hospital going up--they bring that back and there's very mild interest in that.

"News organizations ask them to go out there and find situations that are more interesting to them, which will reach the nightly news, that will reach the front page of the newspapers. And [the media] ask them to do some things that I think many U.S. news organizations would not ask their own employees to do--to put them in harm's way, to put them at the site of situations perhaps in some cases with advance knowledge of what's going on, OK?, to report on incidents and events that they know their employer is looking for."

The panel moderator, Missouri School of Journalism professor Geneva Overholser, then recognized Curley, who was in the audience. Rising to his feet, Curley said: "This is not about Bilal Hussein. He's an unfortunate victim. This is about the Associated Press. We are the target. Freedom of the press is the target." Hussein's coverage area, Al-Anbar Province, has been one of the most violent regions in Iraq, and Hussein's arrest, Curley said, was part of "an extreme effort to shut down the coverage in an out-of-control place. That's what this is about."

Curley added that the wire service will continue to employ Hussein if and when he is released. "We stand by him. His work speaks for itself." (One of Hussein's photos was included in a collection of 20 shots that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005.)

As for why the military doesn't give Hussein his day in court, Fleming says it is a question of security, not a criminal matter, and that "court proceedings and findings of guilt are not applicable."