Obama, the Abu Ghraib Rape Photos, and the Press

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It’s become abundantly clear since last week that Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, was right to criticize the British newspaper the Telegraph for its story claiming that torture photos President Barack Obama is refusing to release “show rape.” General Antonio Taguba, the Telegraph‘s main source for its story, has since told Salon‘s Mark Benjamin that he was quoted out of context; he hasn’t seen the specific photos Obama is withholding. It turns out Taguba was talking about a different set of images, a number of which have already been published by Salon and officially released by the government, that Taguba saw while he was investigating abuses at Abu Ghraib in 2004.

While Gibbs’ criticism of the Telegraph in this specific instance was certainly warranted, it’s not at all clear that Taguba’s clarification will make things any easier for the White House.

The 44 photos in question—the ones Taguba wasn’t talking about—are the subject of an ACLU lawsuit. President Obama had previously agreed to release those photos, but changed his mind in May. The White House could still lose that case and be forced to release the 44 photos.

The bigger problem for Obama is that Taguba hasn’t recanted his claim that there are photos that “show rape”—he’s just denied the Telegraph‘s mistaken allegation that the 44 photos the ACLU is suing for are the photos he was referring to. He wasn’t misquoted: he says there are photos out there that “show rape.” So where are they? Some images Taguba described, including those depicting rape, are not included in the Salon collection. To a certain extent, that’s understandable—normal criminal investigations do not release rape photos, either. But it does raise questions about a set of images and videos the army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) did not release in 2006. Salon explained at the time:

While we want readers to understand what it is we’re presenting, we also want to make clear its limitations. The 279-photo CID timeline and other material obtained by Salon do not include the agency’s conclusions about the evidence it gathered. The captions, which Salon has chosen to reproduce almost verbatim (see methodology), contain a significant number of missing names of soldiers and detainees, misspellings and other minor discrepancies; we don’t know if the CID addressed these issues in other drafts or documents. Also, the CID materials contain two different forensic reports. The first, completed June 6, 2004, in Tikrit, Iraq, analyzed a seized laptop computer and eight CDs and found 1,325 images and 93 videos of “suspected detainee abuse.” The second report, completed a month later in Fort Belvoir, Va., analyzed 12 CDs and found “approximately 280 individual digital photos and 19 digital movies depicting possible detainee abuse.” It remains unclear why and how the CID narrowed its set of forensic evidence to the 279 images and 19 videos that we reproduce here.

It seems pretty clear that the images published by Salon are only a subset of the detainee abuse photos that Taguba and other military investigators saw. That, combined with Taguba sticking to his guns, means that the debunking of the Telegraph story raises more questions than it answers. Why is the ACLU suing for only 44 photos? What determinations did CID make in deciding how to narrow the scope of its investigation? And if photos from Abu Ghraib really did “show rape,” as Taguba still claims, why were none of the Abu Ghraib offenders ever charged with rape? I’m asking.

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