Sunday, December 02, 2007


A Pentagon source who requested anonymity advised me that the Pentagon has prepared a total of nine charges against [Bilal] Hussein. All but two of the charges are "make weight," the source said. The two "more serious accusations" are that Hussein promised to help an individual suspected of involvement in insurgent activities to secure a false I.D., and that his photographs--disseminated internationally by the A.P.–demonstrate that Hussein is a propagandist for insurgents. The source said all of these allegations, excepting perhaps the claims about the I.D., were "extremely weak" and "lacked any meaningful evidence to support them" but noted that "after more than a year and a half of holding this man in prison, it was not possible simply to release him, because that would mean admitting that a mistake was made."
The source also stated that the Pentagon's public affairs division, now headed by Dorrance Smith, had been deeply engaged in the matter from the outset. He said that the Pentagon would say that all decisions were made on the ground in Baghdad. "In a formal sense that is true, but Baghdad is dancing to the Pentagon's tune." The source also stated that using right-wing bloggers as a means of disseminating the story was a strategy formally embraced by Pentagon public affairs at a very high level. "They’re natural allies. Our message is their message. And they have no particular interest in fact-checking. It drives the mainstream media nuts." He likened the right-wing blogosphere to sheep dogs who would keep the American mainstream media in line.

The above is from Scott Horton's "U.S. Seeks to Prosecute Pulitzer Prize-Winning A.P. Photographer" (Harper's magazine). April 12, 2006, Bilal Hussein was imprisoned by the US military and he's remained imprisoned ever since. His crime was reporting. Actual reporting. Including the realities of Falluja. Not rah-rah Dexy Gordon nonsense, but the reality of the slaughter. The military brass didn't like it, nor did the White House. That's his 'crime.'

Now they prepare to punish Bilal. Though he was arrested by the US military and held for over 19 months (thus far), he's going to face an Iraqi court. An Iraqi court? Not an independent body in what is an occupied land. Not a body known for making great decisions since the invasion. But if we all close our eyes and shut our mouths, maybe we can pretend.

Attempting to try their case in public, various government spokespersons (military and non-military) have issued statements linking Bilal to 'insurgents,' to 'enemy-combatants,' to 'terrorists' and to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. If you look too closely at any of the charges aired publicly in the past, you'll quickly grasp that part of the problem is the classification the military has used and the press has echoed.

Who are these groupings? A real press would have made their own determination instead of repeating whatever was the military spin for the day. The bulk of those people are Iraqis. But an occupying force bringing 'freedom' to Iraq can't very well admit that the ones they are fighting are, in fact, Iraqis. So categories are invented.

Bilal is an Iraqi. He grew up there, lived there all of his life. He is from Falluja. The US slaughtered Falluja in November of 2004 (the US attacked it in April of 2004). We would imagine that among the people Bilal grew up with their are many with a variety of feelings towards the US foreign forces and we wouldn't be at all surprised if many of them had hostile thoughts about US forces.

Those are contacts and sources. Bilal is a photo-journalist. A journalist works their contacts and sources to get the best news they can. A journalist, though Dexy Filkins appears to have thought otherwise, is not part of any military, foreign or domestic. A journalist is supposed to tell a story to the best of their ability.

Dexy himself had contacts with the resistance and was going to meet with them. He was so jazzed he even bragged about it to US military brass. A scowl was enough for Dexy to kill that assignment. He denies the story we believe Molly Bingham who is far more trusty to us. Bingham and Steve Connors have a documentary Meeting Resistance which is playing across the United States and will be playing this evening (7:00 pm and 9:30 pm) at Baxter Avenue Theatres, 1250 Bardstown Road in Louisville, Kentucky. Their amazing documentary comes from the two journalists working their sources. That is what a journalist is supposed to do.

Bilal's 'crime' was not grasping that 'good' reporters were the Dexy Filkins who only went where the US military told them to, only wrote what the US military wanted them to and his 'award winning' piece appears to have been vetted by them due to the long delay between the actions themselves, his dateline and when the piece finally appeared in print.

Unlike Dexy, Bilal didn't travel with a regiment of bodyguards (the paper's bodyguards). He traveled among his fellow Iraqis. And that really frightens the military brass, that someone might go where they didn't want them to, that someone might tell what was really happening.

When he and Dexy were go-go-boy living it up in the Green Zone, John F. Burns made the ridiculous statement that he tailors his own coverage (and presumably that of those he edited) for US tax payers. He was quoted making that statement but not forced to explain it. A reporter's supposed to tailor coverage to the truth.

If you're wondering why Dexy and Burnsie are being mentioned here it's because they are part of the Bilal story. By refusing to be independent reporters (Dexy was the US military's go-to-guy when it was time to plant a story; Burnsie had enough experience to know how to report even though he sought to ignore that experience), they added to the climate. They didn't create it. That can't be pinned upon them. The US government didn't want reality getting out of Iraq. That's why reporters were warned/threatened prior to the start of the illegal war that they could be targets (US military targets) if they weren't embedded with the US military. As Naomi Wolf notes in The End of America: Letters of Warning to a Young Patriot, BBC's Kate Adie explained that the Pentagon announced they would "target down" on unembedded reporters transmitting via satellite phones and other electronic devices and that one official explained, "Who cares . . . they've been warned." (Pages 116-117 which also note that the Pentagon wanted to know the political positions of all non-embedded reporters.)

This was the climate before the illegal war started. The mainstream press, in total, refused to question it. They went along with it, many eagerly so. They betrayed their professions and created the climate in which someone doing a journalist's job could be seen as a 'criminal.' And now, when Bilal faces a 'court' hearing, they can't question that publicly. (At least two mainstream news outlets have privately advocated, to the US military, for the release of Bilal.)

If these same censorship standards had been imposed during Vietnam, a lot of reporters would have been behind bars. Things weren't perfect then. But the US press did realize that telling what was happening would require covering everything and not just what the US military wanted covered. But today, like Dan Rather embarrassing himself on David Letterman, news outlets have blurred their professional responsibilities to the point that accurate reporting, when it goes against the line coming out of the White House, is seen as a threat, a crime and something to be punished.

The illegal war will end. Not soon enough and it certainly never should have begun. What won't end will be the stain on journalism. And unless and until journalists can stand with Bilal, the entire profession is under attack. Not from online critics (including ourselves) but from the government. When a journalist doing their job is a threat, there's been a deep confusion as to what journalism is actually supposed to be.

Failure to stand up for and with Bilal betrays journalism and it is such a huge betrayal that there may be no 'bounce back.' If this is allowed to go on without being called out loudly, forget the reality of journalism today, even the greatness once dreamed of is lost. In fact, if it's allowed to go on, we'd suggest that every college journalism program begin immediately implementing courses on "How to cover the US military as a promotional tool and second arm of the government" because otherwise you're educating students in a practice that will be deemed 'criminal.'

Free Bilal. Not 'try him and let the courts decide.' Free him. He's done nothing wrong. He's done journalism. And if one journalist is allowed to stand trial for doing their job, you're setting up the grounds under which another journalist can be tried.

The Trial of the Press (that's what it is, Bilal's just a stand in for the profession) is due to begin December 9th in Baghdad. It should never take place. Bilal should be immediately freed by the US military. Associated Press president and CEO Tom Curley noted ("Railroading A Journalist In Iraq," Washington Post):

After months of stony silence, except for leaks of unsupported and self-serving allegations to friendly media outlets, military authorities are railroading Bilal's case before a judge in circumstances designed to put Bilal and his lawyers at an extreme disadvantage.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the operators of the world's largest prison-camp network have found a way to provide access to due process in a form that actually looks more unjust than indefinite imprisonment without charges.
But this is a poor example -- and not the first of its kind -- of the way our government honors the democratic principles and values it says it wants to share with the Iraqi people.

It also sets an example for Iraqis and, please note, Nouri al-Maliki has repeatedly used the 'crackdown' (in all of its versions) to 'crackdown' on the press.

The AP did their own investigation into Bilal (Scott Horton was one of the attorneys who worked on some of the investigation) and they found nothing. After 19 months of imprisonment, it's obvious the US military has nothing either.

AP's Ellen Hale pointed out (September 20, 2006):

Journalists interview and photograph murderers, child molesters, kidnappers, and, yes, even terrorists, when they cover news that the public has a right to know, such as the reality of the insurgency in Iraq. To cover the conflicts in our world, journalists must have contact with the people who engage on various sides of the conflict.

Hale is correct and that is what journalism is supposed to be. Allowing Bilal to be tried alters journalism. It alters the way it is practiced today (due to the chilling message a trial sends -- more chilling, believe it or not, than the 19 month imprisonment) and it alters the way it's seen in the future.

Think about it, with little else to visualize, American journalist students have pictured becoming the next Woodward and Bernstein. A trial sends a different image. A trial lowers the bar and provides the nightmare, "Don't be Bilal because look what they did to him." Which is why the US military needs to immediately release Bilal and this idea that a journalist can be tried on trumped up charges needs to end immediately.

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