Those weapons of mass photography

May 13, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - If I had my way, every enlisted man and woman in the military would be issued a digital camera.

As we have seen in the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which American soldiers have been accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners, the little gadgets appeared to have helped boost morale by providing the soldiers with snapshots that they could e-mail back home. The cameras also came in handy during the gathering of evidence regarding the abuse.

I like those cameras because certainly the power elites don't.

Take, for example, the contempt that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld showed for the cameras during recent hearings on Capitol Hill. His response to Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, turned into a bit of a rant: "We're functioning in a - with peacetime restraints, 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, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon."

No, folks, it is apparently not the Bush administration's gross lack of preparation for the management of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq that is the problem, in Rummy's view. It's those pesky soldiers and their weapons of mass photography.

Yet something rings a little hollow about Mr. Rumsfeld's complaint. While he complained that the prisoner abuse photos arrived in the hands of the media before they arrived at the Pentagon, the Pentagon sat on a prisoner abuse report without telling Congress or President Bush for two months.

In late April, Mr. Rumsfeld told Congress how the war was going without mentioning Maj. Gen Antonio M. Taguba's damning report on the abuse of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison - even though the Pentagon had been in possession of the report since February.

Mr. Rumsfeld and other Pentagon brass also had been hearing complaints for more than a year from the International Red Cross and other human rights groups of atrocious abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other U.S. detention centers.

But these matters apparently didn't register much with the top Pentagon brass until the night after Mr. Rumsfeld's April visit to Capitol Hill. That was the night that CBS' 60 Minutes II broadcast explosive photos of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib being abused by American guards.

When CBS informed the Pentagon of the photos, the reaction of Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was quick and immediate: He asked CBS to withhold the photos, claiming it might put U.S. soldiers in harm's way.

Yet, one wonders, if the only concern was for the safety of U.S. soldiers, why did neither General Myers nor Mr. Rumsfeld bother to tell Congress or President Bush about the photos?

Apparently, the issue is not the photos but who has control of them. Fortunately, in this Internet Age, it is not so easy to keep secrets from the American people.

Those with long memories may recall journalist Seymour Hersh's first big scoop, the 1968 massacre of unarmed Vietnamese villagers at My Lai. It didn't get much ink when he reported it in late 1969, until The Cleveland Plain Dealer printed photos that had been taken by former Army photographer Ron Haeberle, a Cleveland resident. Pictures do have power.

Rummy's real problem isn't photos. It is democracy. If the American public was less eager to know so much stuff, life would be a lot easier for our military leaders. Unfortunately, life would soon become a lot harder on the rest of us.

That's why I don't expect to get my wish. Instead of issuing cameras, the military, backed by the Bush administration, more than likely will impose more restrictions on the taking of pictures. The first impulse of government is to put a lid on information about itself, even when the public has a right to know.

Sure, democracy can be messy and even confusing sometimes. But it's the best system we've got.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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