Reports of a U.S. “death squad” in Afghanistan, complete with the publication of gory photographs, have failed to attract the intense political or media attention afforded a previous war scandal — the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
In 2004, CBS News broadcast an array of photographs showing American jail guards abusing Iraqi detainees. The most famous: a forced pyramid of naked, humiliated prisoners. The depictions touched off an avalanche of media coverage. In Congress, liberals called for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Democrats launched inquiries and held a string of well-covered hearings.
In recent months, another wartime embarrassment has emerged. The Army charged five soldiers with murder in the deaths of Afghan civilians in what amounted to a “death squad.” The German magazine Der Spiegel published several digital photos of soldiers posing with the dead last month.
Yet the U.S. media have given relatively little coverage, and no one in Congress has called for Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to quit, planned hearings or raised questions at budget hearings.
Conservatives, while not seeking negative coverage of the armed forces, say it is another example of a blatant double standard. The reason the mainstream media have barely touched the story, conservatives say, is because it happened under President Obama, not George W. Bush.
“I think any assignment editor would think a story about soldiers murdering people is a bigger story than soldiers putting prisoners in a naked pyramid,” said Tim Graham, an analyst at the Media Research Center, which seeks to expose what it says is liberal press bias. “When you reverse those, what you’re seeing is political opportunism.”
Mr. Graham offered an example. Time magazine, which devoted much coverage to Abu Ghraib and the killings of Iraqi civilians in Haditha during the Bush presidency, had a “tiny paragraph in the front of the magazine” a few issues ago on the death squad photos, he said.
“If you put Abu Ghraib in the Time magazine search engine, you get 17 pages of results,” Mr. Graham said. “When Abu Ghraib happened, the news media operated under the assumption that it came from the top. All the coverage came with the assumption that the president or the defense secretary ordered it. And if they didn’t, they had to deny and prove that they didn’t. In this case, there is no assumption the president would know or approve.”
Even someone at Time is struck by the lack of “death squad” coverage overall.
Jim Frederick, who covered the Iraq War and is now the managing editor of Time.com and the magazine’s executive editor, wrote in a March 29 blog that the Afghan story was remarkable for two reasons, the first of which is the depravity of the crimes.
“The second reason this tale has been remarkable: It has garnered little attention from the media or the public, even though the allegations started leaking last May and Spc. Jeremy Morlock, one of the five soldiers accused of murder, pled guilty last week and was sentenced to 24 years in prison in exchange for his cooperation in the trials yet to come,” Mr. Frederick wrote.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was the top military spokesman in Iraq when the prison scandal story broke.
“During the Abu Ghraib investigations, many of the media questions appeared to originate from a presumption that the criminal actions of a few soldiers were part of a broader U.S. policy to promote torture,” Gen. Kimmitt told The Washington Times.
“Today, reports of criminal activities by soldiers are more fairly characterized as idiosyncratic events emanating from poor leadership and criminal behavior, rather than encouraged and sanctioned by government policy.”
Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, at a news conference quickly accused Marines of murder in Haditha before all the facts were released. Democrats have made no such accusations this time, and Republicans have not sought to make political hay from the “death squad” story.
Mr. Graham offered an example: In 2004, after the Abu Ghraib photos hit the airwaves, NBC News at one point had aired 90 stories. He then researched how many stories NBC had broadcast on mass graves in Iraq — a fact that bolstered Mr. Bush’s case for sending troops to topple Saddam Hussein.
“I think the number was six,” Mr. Graham said. “It wasn’t about life or death. It was about maximum embarrassment for the administration in charge.”
Capitol Hill has been about as interested in the scandal as has the press. When Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, testified in mid-March before the House and Senate armed services committees, he faced no questions about the atrocities that happened before he took command. He testified months after the soldiers had been charged, but days before Der Spiegel released the photos.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has no plans to investigate the case or hold hearings, a spokesman said, as the Army is looking into the command climate in late 2009 and early 2010 when soldiers of the 5th Stryker Combat Brigade are accused of killing civilians.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and committee chairman, led several inquiries into Bush administration policies, including Abu Ghraib, detainee interrogations and intelligence collection on Iraq. Mr. Levin issued reports that harshly criticized Bush officials and held public hearings.
In his memoir, “Known and Unknown,” Mr. Rumsfeld, a Levin target, wrote that he viewed the Abu Ghraib photos shortly before their release.
“The digital photos … documented the sadist abuse and torment they were inflicting on prisoners in their charge,” he said. “The photographs threatened to weaken public support and call into question the legitimacy of our ongoing efforts on the eve of the transition to Iraqi sovereignty.”
Mr. Rumsfeld noted that his command in Iraq announced well before the photos surfaced that it was conducting an investigation into prisoner abuse.
“At the time there was little media interest in the story,” he said, “but once it was accompanied by photographs three months later, that changed dramatically.”
That reaction included intense scrutiny and condemnation from Mr. Bush’s political opponents. “We’re not going to recover from this damage,” declared Mr. Murtha, who later would brand Marines at Haditha as murderers.
The New York Times and other liberal editorial pages called on Mr. Rumsfeld to resign.
Yet the Afghan death squad incident has barely touched Washington’s consciousness.
A spokesman for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism said he was only faintly aware of the Afghanistan story and thus declined to comment on how the media have covered it.
At a recent book event, Mr. Rumsfeld told The Washington Times’ Water Cooler blog: “It is interesting in the case of Abu Ghraib, which was such an important press event, that nobody was killed. And in this case, it looks as though there are allegations that people were actually killed. … The situation, of course, is much worse if someone dies. But it’s a sad thing. It’s unfortunate. The overwhelming majority of men and women in uniform are professional. They handle themselves well. They treat people properly who are in our custody.”