Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Six Navy SEALs filed a lawsuit against the Associated Press and one of its reporters yesterday, saying the news organization revealed their identities, compromised their security and invaded their privacy by publishing personal photographs in a Dec. 4 story.

The complaint says AP reporter Seth Hettena used about 40 images from the personal photo-storage Web site of a Navy SEAL wife. The AP published nine of the photos, which show the SEAL team capturing members of Saddam Hussein’s loyalist forces.

An accompanying story implied the photos “could be” the earliest evidence of abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

The images were picked up by the Arab press, including Al Jazeera, and have made their way onto a billboard outside U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where detainees from the war on terror are being kept. The billboard design includes swastika symbols and accuses the SEALs of “being Nazis,” according to the suit.

“It was totally reckless. These photos clearly show the guys’ faces, which now put their lives at risk, and the lives of their families,” said James W. Hutton, an attorney for the SEALs who filed the complaint in the Superior Court of San Diego.

AP insisted yesterday that there had been no wrongdoing.

“We believe AP’s use of the photos and the manner in which they were obtained were entirely lawful and proper,” said Dave Tomlin, assistant general counsel for the organization.

Mr. Hutton takes issue with AP’s implication that the SEAL photos were on par with pictures showing ill treatment of prisoners by U.S. Army personnel in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib facility.

“These photos do not show any prisoner abuse,” Mr. Hutton said, but depict “standard procedures during covert actions.”

He also noted an ironic twist: The AP story quoted a Navy source who said that revealing the name or face of special warfare operators could endanger them and their families.

“The SEAL photos had obscured the faces of the insurgents. But when the AP published them, they did not bother to obscure the faces of the SEALs. They did not give the Americans the same respect as the insurgents. It’s inexcusable and unprofessional,” Mr. Hutton said.

“There was no need for the AP to publish the faces of the SEALs. They added nothing to the value of the story.”

Mr. Hutton said the six SEALs have been receiving abusive phone calls and that at least one of the wives has been followed. He also said some Arab-language Web sites are “calling for action” against the SEALs.

Several of them are on active duty in Iraq.

“We are very disappointed in this reporter’s unprofessional behavior and the fact that he showed such disregard for us, our safety, and the ongoing work we are doing,” one of the SEALs said. “This risk is now greater because of Mr. Hettena, and the increased risk was completely unnecessary and preventable.”

The group is asking for unspecified damage for their invasion of privacy, plus the emotional distress of two of the wives. It also has requested that the photos not be republished and “to preclude the publication of additional unpublished photographs.”

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