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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 May, 2004, 10:33 GMT 11:33 UK
US powerless to halt Iraq net images
By Robert Plummer
BBC News Online

Last year's US-led war in Iraq presented a showcase for the Pentagon's superior military technology - but as the occupation drags on, gadgetry is increasingly showing another side of the American armed forces.

Picture of Iraqi prisoners being abused in Abu Ghraib jail (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
Pictures taken by US troops are circulating freely (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
When the shocking images depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops began to surface, it became clear that many of them were amateur pictures, apparently taken by soldiers using their own private digital cameras.

The internet also played a role in the distribution of the photographs, highlighting the ease with which troops serving in Iraq can now send pictures to friends and relatives back home.

Many of these are quite innocuous, the equivalent of the snaps taken by tourists abroad. But whatever the content, the images are not subject to any kind of military censorship and are transmitted freely back to the US.

In his testimony to congressional committees, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated that the flood of pictures was now beyond the US authorities' control.

"There are a lot more photographs and videos that exist," he said. "If these are released to the public, obviously it is going to make matters worse... I looked at them last night and they are hard to believe."

Unapproved footage

Mr Rumsfeld was indignant at the publication of such images: "We're functioning with peacetime constraints, with legal requirements, in a wartime situation in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise."

However, he admitted that he had not realised the seriousness of the allegations until the pictures were leaked to the media.

The internet has been acting as an unofficial clearing-house for all sorts of unapproved images of conflict in Iraq.

Undated photo of US military personnel offloading coffins of US soldiers killed in Iraq at Dover Air Base in Delaware
The Pentagon wanted to ban the pictures to protect soldiers' families
Photographs of the coffins of dead American soldiers repatriated from Iraq were published on the web, but only after activists successfully filed a Freedom of Information Act request to overcome the Pentagon's objections.

And at least one website is showing a video report containing footage apparently shot from the cockpit of a US military helicopter and showing the killing of a wounded insurgent in cold blood.

The film is said to have come from a European working as a sub-contractor for the US Army who left Iraq last month.

Despite Mr Rumsfeld's concerns, the American military does not have any centrally determined policy on the use of digital cameras by soldiers. That is left to commanding officers in the field.

In the old days, letters got censored... Now it's different
BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus

A spokesman for US Central Command in Iraq, Lt Cdr Nick Balice, told BBC News Online: "Certainly the use of digital cameras and the internet provides methods of communicating that did not exist prior.

"As far as I know, there is not a policy that covers theatre-wide with regards to digital cameras. It depends on what area they are in - there may be restrictions, such as along flight lines or within secure areas."

Internet links

BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus points out that frontline soldiers in combat zones are normally too busy to take pictures and that this is more of an issue for what are called "rear area support troops".

"The US military have reasonably sophisticated camps for their troops," he says.

"In those places, they're often linked to the internet and it's a legitimate means of allowing soldiers to communicate with their families. It's hard to control the content of what they're saying."

Jonathan Marcus argues that social change, just as much as technological change, is responsible for the climate that allows these images of abuse to circulate.

A hooded and wired Iraqi prisoner is seen at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, Iraq in this undated photo. (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
The furore over the photos has shaken the Bush administration (AP/Courtesy The New Yorker)
"In World War I, the only means of communication was by letter, and military mail was heavily censored. Even when soldiers returned home, social pressures probably led them not to talk at length about the issues they faced.

"Now it's different - you have a professional army and people have a different attitude to authority."

In a less deferential society, today's soldiers would be unlikely to tolerate the level of censorship that was considered routine in previous conflicts.

But of course, the real issue is not the depiction of the abuse, but the fact that it should have happened at all.

"Certainly one of the issues that might be looked into is the use of digital cameras and whether or not any policy might be desirable," says US Central Command's Lt Cdr Balice.

"But if there's some kind of thought that we might introduce a policy because we fear that wrongdoing might be exposed, then that is incorrect. In any case, the photographing of detainees is prohibited."

Ultimately, then, the only way that the coalition can prevent the spread of images depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners is to prevent the abuse itself.

Technology may change, but the morality of war will always pose the same dilemmas.

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