April 22, 2008

The Case of Bilal Hussein

Last week, Associated Press photographer (and alleged insurgent collaborator) Bilal Hussein was released from custody after an Iraqi tribunal decided his case fell under an amnesty law passed earlier in 2008. The United States military had accused Hussein of working with insurgent groups in Anbar Province, in part because of his uncanny ability repeatedly to photograph insurgents in action.

I don’t know if he’s guilty or not, and he deserves the presumption of innocence. Either way, his case brings attention to an issue most consumers of news from Iraq rarely consider: the fact that large media companies--the Associated Press and other news wire agencies and newspapers--work with some sketchy characters in Iraq.

Iraq is full of such sketchy characters, as everyone knows, and large media companies require an enormous staff and network of locals to produce daily news coverage. They can’t cover breaking news every day in a low-intensity war zone without them, especially if violent activity--car bombs, fire fights, assassinations, and the like--are the bulk of what makes up the news. Someone is killed almost every day in Iraq, but the chances that an individual writer or photographer will happen to be present as an eyewitness are minuscule. Reporters who cover breaking daily news spend much of their time on the phone with stringers and sources. They don’t personally investigate every incident in the field. It just isn’t physically possible if they're required to write every day about what happens in a country the size of California, especially when it can take literally days to travel from one part of Baghdad to another.

I’m sure media companies are careful about who they hire, but it’s hard to make the right call every time in a bewildering and inscrutable place like Iraq. Terrorists and insurgents are and have been supported by a substantial percentage of the local population. It’s nearly impossible to build a firewall thick enough to keep them all out.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at April 22, 2008 2:02 PM

I work for AP, and we have had some nausea-inducing internal memos about Bilal Hussein. I have no problem with the presumption of innocence- but I can absolutely guaruntee that if I was accused of very serious crimes I would immediately be suspended from working and AP as an organisation would refrain from assuming anything about me until I was tried.
But that is not the conversation going on within AP. All the memos insist he is innocent- something they can't possibly know. They also imply that the US military is politically corrupted and is holding Hussein for political reasons rather than the ones given out by the military. It is creepy and makes me doubt the judgement of the people at the top of AP. They've been watching too many of those terrible anti-war movies Hollywood seems to churn out every 3 months...

Posted by: PresterJohn Author Profile Page at April 22, 2008 3:09 PM

"All the memos insist he is innocent- something they can't possibly know."

Willing suspension of dis-belief or plausible deniability?

Posted by: Lindsey Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 11:00 AM

So he's what, guilty? Innocent? Was there any evidence that this man was guilty of collaboration? If so, why was he released?

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 12:47 PM

There is evidence that none of us has seen, so I can't comment on it and neither can you.

It doesn't matter if he's guilty at this point. He was released under a general amnesty law, and would be free even if he were known as a fact to be guilty.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 12:50 PM

...and would be free even if he were known as a fact to be guilty.

The article says that he was freed pending any other charges, so I guess no other charges were filed. That would indicate to me some level of innocence or doubt as to his guilt, and that if contrary evidence were available the tribunal would not have freed him.

I am also assuming the amnesty is not freeing known insurgents, terrorists, or their collaborators. I could be wrong. But if the Iraqi government is freeing known insurgents, collaborators, etc, that this would not be a good thing.


Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 1:38 PM

I don't know anywhere near all the details of this case. I just used it as a springboard to write about the riskiness of hiring Iraqis in general. The military has problems with it, and these cases are often murky.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 1:48 PM

It could be that Mr. Hussein had ties to an insurgent group that is now cooperating with the U.S.

I don't think they would release someone that was a member of AQI, but he could have been affiliated with a more "moderate" Sunni group that laid down their arms or was disbanded at some point.

Posted by: Edgar Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 2:09 PM

It could be that Mr. Hussein had ties to an insurgent group that is now cooperating with the U.S.

Or he might be innocent.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 2:26 PM

I work at a law firm where Bilal Hussein's defense team gave a presentation, and so I may actually have useful information to contribute for once.

The way they told it, Hussein was held primarily because he was a known associate of many of the insurgents who he photographed. They didn't dispute this -- he was a Fallujah native and knew many of the insurgents on a first-name basis; some of them had even been his classmates. It was this relationship with them that allowed him the access to his subjects, and, somewhat ironically, that's what got him in trouble. No charges were filed because he couldn't be connected with a crime per se -- unless you consider that some of the awesome photographs he took were actually intended to be propaganda for the insurgency (given that he was selling his photos to the AP, I think that's a pretty weak argument). So it really seems to boil down to guilt by association.

Of course, I didn't see the evidence that the prosecution might have wanted to present and the defense left out, but just on the basis that no actual charges were filed against him, I think he was held on presumption of guilt with no solid evidence of doing anything other than his job. If anybody knows differently, then by all means, spell it out here.

On the basis of everything credible I have read and the information presented to me by his lawyers, I think he is innocent of any wrongdoing and I'm glad they let him go. I don't bear a grudge (nor, I suspect, does he) against a rightfully cautious military facing a situation where it is extremely difficult to tell the difference between friend and foe. Although it took longer for him to be released than it would under the real rule of law, in war you do the best you can. I think justice ultimately prevailed in this instance, and that, assuming his life is not unfortunately cut short, Bilal Hussein will go on to have a fine career as a photo journalist, should he so choose.

Posted by: amagi Author Profile Page at April 23, 2008 7:02 PM

It doesn't bother me that Bilal was released. The amnesty plan applies to people who committed crimes worse than being the photographer during an ambush. However, I am happy that the story has gotten some attention and I hope that it gets more attention, simply to shed light on the fact that news outlets have often used stringers who were our enemies and actively worked against us. It takes a lot of nerve for a media outlet to employ our enemies when those enemies are fighting against us and to then question the military for using Sunni tribes in support of our mission.

I'm surprised this guy was working for AP. Al-Reuters was far more notorious for this, almost as if it were a matter of policy for them, both inside and outside of Iraq.

Posted by: Saint in Exile Author Profile Page at April 24, 2008 7:28 PM

I'm not sure it's a crime to photograph and sell propaganda shots of terrorists committing terror acts. Is it? Doesn't Freedom of Speech mean that AP is free to buy and print terrorist propaganda, calling it news, as long as it's true?

I believe that's what he did -- and what AP was deliberately buying. Pro-terrorist, anti-American propaganda shots with the aim of convincing Americans to leave ... so as to allow the terrorists to rule unopposed after the US leaves. (The rule afterward is usually left out of the AP stories).

Especially if he received nothing from the terrorists other than a call to be somewhere at some time (a tip! tips certainly are not, and should not, be illegal) -- and then safety as he took the shots of successful terror murder.

Sort of pro-terrorist snuff filming -- I think showing Jack Ruby murdering Lee Harvey Oswald is about the same, and not illegal.

But the legal nicities of cooperating with pro-terror propaganda wasn't the point of this post, although it's the main focus around this particular case. I'm convinced he's guilty of selling such pro-terror shots, but I really don't know if that's illegal.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad Author Profile Page at April 25, 2008 10:16 AM

I noticed that Bilal Hussein is quoted in this NY Times blog post about the Bush shoe-throwing incident.


Posted by: Undertoad Author Profile Page at December 16, 2008 6:24 AM

there is alot of interesting comments on that page but i do not see the one from Bilal Hussein

Posted by: acai berry cleanse Author Profile Page at December 24, 2008 3:02 AM
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