NEW YORK A series of accusations raised by the U.S. military against an Associated Press photographer detained for 19 months in Iraq are false or meaningless, according to an intensive AP investigation of the case made public Wednesday.
Evidence and testimony collected by the AP show no support for allegations that Bilal Hussein took part in insurgent activities or bombmaking, and few of the images he provided dealt directly with Iraqi insurgents.
"Despite the fact that Hussein has not been interrogated since May 2006, allegations have been dropped or modified over time, and new claims added, all without any explanation," said the nearly 50-page report compiled last spring by lawyer and former federal prosecutor Paul Gardephe.
The report, along with copious exhibits and other findings, were provided to U.S. and Iraqi officials in late June but have never been publicly released by the AP.
"The best evidence of how Hussein conducted himself as a journalist working for AP is the extensive photographic record," Gardephe wrote. "There is no evidence in nearly a thousand photographs taken over the 20-month period that his activities ever strayed from those of a legitimate journalist."
The U.S. military notified the AP last weekend that it intended to submit a complaint against Hussein that would bring the case into the Iraqi justice system as early as Nov. 29. Under Iraqi codes, an investigative magistrate will decide whether there are grounds to try Hussein, who was seized in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on April 12, 2006. The AP has retained Gardephe to defend Hussein before the Iraqi court.
Military officials have alleged that Hussein, 36, had links to terrorist groups but are refusing to disclose what evidence or accusations would be presented. Previously, the military suggested an array of possible lines of investigation, including claims that Hussein offered to provide false identification to a sniper seeking to evade U.S.-led forces, that he possessed bomb-making equipment and that he took photographs that were synchronized with insurgent blasts.
Most of Gardephe's report is based on a two-week visit to Iraq in March. He inspected hundreds of photographs taken by Hussein and interviewed him in custody for more than 40 hours along with a wide range of co-workers, relatives and friends.
The report addresses points raised by the military in both private conversations and public statements, but Gardephe said he was hampered by the lack of specific information about what the military intends to present in court.
Despite U.S. military claims that insurgents granted Hussein "unusual access," the overwhelming majority of his photographs showed scenes readily visible to any passer-by, such as bombed-out buildings, injured civilians and funerals, Gardephe said. He reviewed all of the nearly 1,000 photo images submitted by Hussein while he was working for the AP, of which only 420 were distributed. Fewer than 10 percent of those 420 show either known or possible insurgents.
His report found no photographs synchronized with an explosion or other attack, and no other photographic evidence that he was ever tipped off to insurgent activity.
Only on one day during the most intense fighting over Fallujah in November 2004 did he photograph insurgents actually engaged in combat against coalition forces, while other photos during his employment showed the aftermath of attacks in areas he was covering.
Gardephe cited Hussein's photos of a Red Crescent ambulance damaged by insurgent mortars; of relatives weeping over the body of an Iraqi soldier killed by insurgents; of the bodies of 19 fisherman killed by insurgents for no apparent reason; and of civilians hurt by suicide car bombs.
"These and other such images are inconsistent with the notion that Hussein was 'plugged-into' the insurgency or an insurgent propagandist," the report said.
One of the photos of insurgents in combat taken in Fallujah on Nov. 8, 2004 was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning submission by the AP. It shows one insurgent firing a machine gun, while another holds an ammunition belt and a third apparently had just fired a mortar.
According to the AP report, Hussein took this photo from a nearby furniture store, and the insurgents were not aware of his presence.
Regarding some of the other accusations:
The report rejected the military's contention that Hussein possessed bomb-making materials. Gardephe said this allegation appeared to be based solely on the fact that Hussein, after being arrested at his Ramadi apartment, was taken to an electrician's shop on the ground floor and photographed next to equipment and broken appliances.
"There is no evidence that Hussein had any access to or connection with that shop and storage room; the doors of both were locked before the USM (U.S. military) smashed them in," the report said. "Both the owner of the building and Hussein himself told us that the shop was owned and operated by an electrician who had left Ramadi six months to a year earlier."
Gardephe said he uncovered no evidence that Hussein provided false identification to anyone. He noted that false IDs are readily available from numerous sources in Iraq. Many Iraqis carry false IDs to conceal their religious affiliation, which has been used as a pretext in sectarian killings.
"Why anyone would approach Hussein about false identification is unclear, but such an allegation ignores the fact that false identification is epidemic in Iraq and readily obtainable both from the marketplace and even from Government offices," the report said.
The U.S. military has suggested that Hussein may have played a role in the kidnapping of two Arab journalists in March 2006. The AP report said Hussein simply brought the two men to safety, at the request of another journalist who had telephoned him with news of their release.
The report noted that the AP had spoken with both journalists, neither of whom had been contacted by the U.S. military. "They emphatically stated that Hussein was not involved in their kidnapping and that he in fact brought them to safety," it said.
At the time of his arrest in Ramadi, Hussein had two guests in his apartment, one of them an alleged insurgent leader named Abu Moadh. According to the AP report, Hussein said he had never met Abu Moadh before that day, and had offered him refuge in his apartment during a chance encounter on the street as people were fleeing from a bombing nearby.
The U.S. military contends that Hussein "gave conflicting answers during his interrogations when asked whether he 'knew' these two men," the report said. "The issue, however, could turn on a miscommunication or mistranslation as to the meaning of the word 'know.' Hussein told interrogators initially that he 'knew of' these insurgent leaders, but he did not mean to suggest that he had had personal dealings with them."
The U.S. military said explosive residue was found on Hussein after his arrest. But the report of such residue would not be surprising, given that Hussein had been walking back from a bakery at the time of a nearby explosion.
"Explosions are commonplace in Iraqi cities where insurgents are active. Like other journalists, Hussein was expected to frequent such places as part of his job," the report said. "Under the circumstances, the presence of explosive residue on Hussein's body or clothing proves nothing."
Gardephe recounted discussions he had with U.S. military officials at Camp Cropper, the facility outside Baghdad where Hussein is being held.
"The USM conceded that the 'evidence' concerning most of the allegations against Hussein was quite weak," Gardephe wrote.
"However, I was told that the USM has 'irrefutable proof' concerning the synchronized photo/explosion allegation and the false identification claim. The USM refused to share any evidence concerning these two allegations with me, however, on the grounds that the proof was 'classified."'
Hussein comes from a prominent family in Fallujah and was one of 14 children.
Gardephe's report said one brother has been taken into custody three times but was quickly released each time. It said the U.S. military has alleged that another brother is active in an insurgent group located outside of Iraq; however, the AP report said he left Iraq because he was threatened by insurgents after he had joined a pro-coalition police force.
"In the more than 40 hours I spent with Hussein, I saw no hint of religious, sectarian, or ideological extremism," Gardephe wrote. "Instead, I found a fairly sophisticated man who had thought deeply about the ethics of his trade."
The report said the lack of evidence linking Hussein to the insurgency suggests that he is being detained because of his work as a photojournalist.
"Hussein's interrogators have repeatedly alluded to the photographs he took as the basis for his incarceration," the report said. "Interrogators have focused, in particular, on several photographs taken shortly before his arrest showing Iraqi children playing with the torn-off leg of an injured U.S. or Iraqi soldier."
The report quoted one interrogator as saying to Hussein: "Do you know what would happen if these photos were shown in the U.S.? There would be huge demonstrations and we would have to leave Iraq. ... Your photos present a threat to us."
None of those photographs was distributed by the AP.
Numerous other photojournalists have been detained in Iraq, but few have been held more than a few months.
Hussein's continued detention "cannot be justified," the AP report said. "He has not been interrogated since mid-May 2006; there is no credible evidence that he was an active participant in the insurgency; and journalists with known connections to the insurgents have been released."
"In light of these factors," the report concluded, "we request that the USM release Hussein after reviewing the facts ... and carefully considering Hussein's extensive photographic production."