Iraq: New Abuse Details
Leonard Downie Jr.
Executive Editor, The Washington Post
Friday, May 21, 2004; 12:00 PM
Previously secret sworn statements by detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison and obtained by The Washington Post in Iraq describe abuse including allegations of prisoners being ridden like animals, sexually fondled by female soldiers and forced to retrieve their food from toilets. The Post also obtained additional photos and digital video documenting detainee abuse.
Documents | Photos | Video
Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. was online Friday, May 21 at Noon ET, to discuss the new evidence of detainee abuse and The Post's decision to make the documents, photos and video available to the public.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Would you give us a little insight into the decision-making that went into making this new information available to the public? How does it advance the story? Shocking yes, but isn't it just more of the same? I'm not seeing anything new here.
Leonard Downie Jr.: This is the first time that we are reporting the words of the detainees themselves (from statements they have made to American investigators) about what was done to them and who did it. These statements show even more extensive and repulsive kinds of abuse than we had previously reported.
Are information, pictures, and video arriving to you in a stream, or was it at once, and being released periodically? Do we have any idea what Sy Hersh has not yet published that may unfold in the next few weeks?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We are continuing to report out this story vigorously and each day we find new information. The documents, photos and videos we reported on today were obtained within the past two days. We never know what Hersh will report next, but he is working just as vigorously on this as we are and he is a good reporter.
Falls Church, Va.:
I understand there are more photos and videos that were not released. Will we see those released in the coming days?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We now have scores of photos of abuses in the prison and more video. But we are going to publish only those images that give readers essential information. Many of the images are so shocking and in such bad taste, especially the extensive nudity, that they are not publishable in our newspaper or on our Web site.
When this story broke on "60 Minutes II" there were reports that the Pentagon had asked them to either delay or not run their story. Did The Post entertain any calls from government officials asking that this information not be made available to the public?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The Washington Post has not received any such calls.
I've never read the newspaper and been moved to tears before. How many others do you think feel like me now, and what impact do you think that will have on the election? I, for one, just donated money to Kerry's campaign online!
Leonard Downie Jr.: These are indeed very disturbing statements and images. It is been emotionally difficult for our reporters and editors to review all of them. I do not know what political effect they will have.
How is the Post's continuing coverage shedding any new light on the abuse? It seems excessive and just sensationalistic at this point. Do the new pictures and continually rehashed descriptions of the abuse do anything but inflame the situation? Loaded questions, I know, but it seems that the daily pictures on the cover are just there to sell newspapers.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I do not believe that publication of these stories and pictures affect our circulation much one way or the other. And we are not just rehashing previously published information. We are adding new information in an effort to determine the full extent of the abuse and who was responsible for it up the chain of command.
Is it the policy of The Washington Post to print the names
of American women who have been raped, or who accuse
others of raping them? Why is it that The Post chooses to
further degrade the victims in this scandal by publishing
both their name and number?
Most ethical papers wouldn't treat Americans this way, but
it's okay to treat the Iraqis this way? It certainly exposes
the victims to further shame in their own communities,
and it would have been easy to rely on The Post's integrity
to simply say the victim's names were known to The Post,
as is usually done in these circumstances.
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have been trying to withhold the names and images of the Iraqi victims of sexual assaults. We also are [not] publishing scores of images of naked Iraqi victims of abuse because of our concern for their dignity.
According to your article, "The disclosures come from a new cache of documents, photographs and videos obtained by The Post that are part of evidence assembled by Army investigators putting together criminal cases against soldiers at Abu Ghraib."
Is this investigation complete or ongoing? And are soldiers routinely interviewed as part of an investigation such as this? If so, where are their accounts? Or are they not among the information obtained by The Post?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Several investigations are continuing. The soldiers have been interviewed and we are seeking to report on what they told investigators.
At what point do we move on from these Iraqi prisoner abuse stories?
Do you feel that they have run their course?
Do you think that the media's continued running of these stories is damaging to our troops efforts in Iraq?
Is a conscious effort made by the staff at The Post to run the positive Iraq stories along with negative? Are there no positive stories?
Leonard Downie Jr.: As I told others during this chat, we still have not obtained the full story about how this abuse occurred and who was responsible for it up the chain of command. We will continue that reporting. We have over the months of the occupation of Iraq reported stories about positive things American troops have done there. That has become much more difficult to do in recent weeks because the security situation has deteriorated there to the point that it is too dangerous for our reporters to travel as widely as they did before. But we will keep trying.
Jus as a courtesy, did you notify the Pentagon and/or the White House of your intent to publish. If so, what was their response? Did they discourage you from doing so?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We also seek reaction and explanation from the appropriate officials to stories that we are about to publish. You can read such reaction in today's story. No one tried to discourage from publishing.
As far as I know, it is not exactly the usual practice for The Post's executive editor to sit down for an online chat. Does your presence here today indicate the paper's view of the extreme importance of what you have just published (i.e., the actual statements of the detainees)? In addition, is your publication of copies of the actual statements preemptive, reflecting a concern that the administration is going to challenge the validity of your front page story today?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I try to conduct online chats whenever possible, and this is obviously important coverage worth discussing. We published the actual statements to give our readers as much information as possible. There would have been no way to challenge the validity of this information.
Your decisions to publish certain pictures and to withhold others are inevitably subjective -- to some extent matters of personal taste. How many editors review the pictures, and has there been general consensus among them about what should and should not be published?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Many editors reviewed the photo and video images before deciding what to publish, according to the criteria I stated in some of my other responses in this chat.
I suspect you mistyped or left a word out here, in your response to Aptos CA:
"We also are publishing scores of images of naked Iraqi victims of abuse because of our concern for their dignity."
Leonard Downie Jr.: Thank you very much. I meant to say "We are NOT publishing images of naked Iraqi images..." I type too fast, thanks to my tenth grade typing class.
CNN, MSNBC and others are crediting the Post while running video of the prison. Did you give them permission to run the video? How does this inter-news organization sharing work?
Leonard Downie Jr.: On stories of this important, news organizations will allow other news organizations to republish or rebroadcast stories and images, so long as the originating news organization is credited. Our overriding interest is to inform the American public.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
Disturbing to say the least and I too was moved to tears. But I wonder, why all the photos and videos you have obtained are not made available to those who want to see them. I understand they may not be suitable for general publication, but why can't you make them available on a separate site or link? Many of us do not want the information or images we see to be sanitized on our behalf.
Leonard Downie Jr.: This is something we are discussing, and I don't know what we will decide.
How do you address critics who contend the publication of these pictures only adds fuel to our enemies and the insurgency?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We never know what really motivates our enemies. After all, nothing like this was published before the 9/11 attacks. It is important, however, that the American people be fully informed about how their government and military are behaving because, in our constitutional democracy, the government and military are answerable to the American people.
El Paso, Tex.:
Have you been able to identify any of the soldiers, or military intelligence officers, or civilian contractors in the pictures whose names are not already widely known?
Leonard Downie Jr.: This is something that we are now concentrating on in our reporting.
First, thanks to you and the Post staff for all you have done in helping bring these terrible abuses to the light. Is the material in the Post today typical of the type of material Secretary Rumsfeld warned was coming? Or is there still more/worse to come? Thanks.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I believe that the photos and video we now have are those that Rumsfeld and members of Congress viewed last week.
Congratulations on your service to a free and enlightened public.
I am sure you will be the subject of some scorn for advancing this story.
As such, I think it is important that the public be reminded of the wisdom handed down from the fictional Chicago barkeep Martin Dooley:
"It is the newspaper's job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
Leonard Downie Jr.: Agreed, and thanks.
Is there evidence of participation in the abuse by individuals other than those that are presently accused?
Does it appear that the abuse was limited in time to the one period associated with the photographic evidence?
What about the other shifts of guards that worked the cell block during the period?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Again, these are the questions we are now pursuing in our reporting. We believe these are the MPs who were primarily involved. But we want to find out more about the roles of civilian contractor, military intelligence and other interrogators and their commanders.
What is your sense of the impact this story is having outside the Beltway? Also, do you have any sense or reaction to the story from overseas yet? How do you characterize the reaction you sense from Americans to the entire prison abuse scandal? (sorry, that's three questions.)
Leonard Downie Jr.: We are going to try to report out reaction around the country and world. And we periodically conduct polls of American public opinion.
A few people writing in seem a bit unphased by The Post's stories. I think The Post is brave for publishing such sensitive material and feel that your writers researchers and editors deserve praise for their integrity. What shocks me is that there are those who see this as some kind of falsity or "he said, she said."
And please, if you could speak to this, I have never understood why the offending soldiers documented everything on video and in photographs. Has The Post learned why their tortures were pushed into voyuerism?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Your question about the soldiers' motivation in photographing everything they were doing, possibly beyond any photography that was ordered or suggested for interrogation purposes, is an interesting one that I hope can be answered in future media reporting and the government investigations.
Thank you so much for publishing this important story, in the Iraqis own words.
Do you feel a better picture has emerged yet of how high up the chain of command this goes?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We are still pursuing chain of command information.
You have indicated that you have more photos and video, were these supplied by the government or are they from your sources in the field? Furthermore you have stated that you will not publish all the photos or video in that they are too disturbing. Isn't it true that such photos could be edited to mitigate the most offensive part but yet still provide us a view of the degree of depravity the prisoners suffered? In short how do you select the photos and yet remain true to your duty to the public? Do you have a panel or do you yourself make the sole decision on what photos will be published?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have already cropped some photos that we published to minimize nudity. Final decisions about what we publish are made by me or the managing editor, Steve Coll, after extensive discussion with other senior editors and our photo editors, as well, in the case of images published by washingtonpost.com, with its editors.
Why do you label the tactics of the US military as "abuse" rather than "torture?"
Leonard Downie Jr.: Abuse is obvious from the information and images we have, and is serious in its own right. Torture is more loaded term and its use requires more information about whether the abuse constitutes torture.
While I appreciate your concern about "taste," I am equally
concerned about full disclosure of the truth. Don't you
think that by "editing" which images of the prison the
public may view, you are contributing to the sanitizing of
an issue? Perhaps people would be even more outraged
than they presently are, and a positive change in
administration policy and accountability would be more
likely to occur, if they had complete access to all the
Leonard Downie Jr.: We edit what goes into the newspaper and onto washingtonpost.com every day -- editing for length, relevance, taste, fairness, libel,etc. That is what we have done with these stories and images. We have not withheld anything from publication that would expand our readers' knowledge about the extent or seriousness of this abuse.
Thank you for being part of this forum today. Which is the more important story in your view -- the abuse of the prisoners in Iraq or the apparent discrediting of Chalabi, who was the source of so much information that supposedly supported our going to war?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Time and more information will tell, but the prisoner abuse is a very important issue for a nation with our values.
Dear Mr. Downie,
I think that the Post should print a special section or supplement which includes the complete statements of Iraqi detainees abused by our soldiers. Is there any chance that this will actually happen?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We published today a very large amount of what was included in the detainess' statements; the rest would be repetitive.
To date, all of the abuse, horrifying and disgusting, reported have been against Iraqi males. We all know that there are Iraqi women prisoners. However, there has been no mention in the media of abuses against Iraqi women. I'm curious to know if the Iraqi women prisoners have simply been safe in the prison system or its just not being reported. Have you found any abuse(s) against Iraqi women prisoners under U.S. custody in your investigation? Thank you,
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have not so far.
I greatly appreciate the Post's coverage of the prisoner abuse scandal. I also realize the high level of journalism you are reaching by following the story as closely and determine new approaches to shed further light on the story.
However, how do you intend to deal with the criticism (which I'm sure will come) from Senator Inhofe and others who claim that this whole thing is just "hazing" and that The Post and others are merely pumping up the scandal to put pressure on the administration?
Personally, I think that argument is absurd, but I am sure you are aware of it and it must have entered into your decision-making in covering this story, correct?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Our decision-making is based on informing our readers as fully as possible while also being fair.
Edinburgh, U. K.:
I have yet to read anything in the press about the prospect of international war crimes prosecution for the American atrocities in Iraq. Is such prosecution being contemplated? Is it imaginable that, with Milosevic in the dock at The Hague, similar justice might await those responsible for policies that brought about the torture and murder of Iraqi citizens, 70-90 percent of whom were arrested by mistake?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We are currently covering the American investigations of this abuse. I do not know whether there will be international investigations.
Does The Post have reporters able to directly interview former prisoners, or are all prisoners' statements coming from the military or other media?
Leonard Downie Jr.: The statements we reported on today were made to investigators of the prison abuse. We have also interviewed and published the accounts of former Iraqi prisoners who said they were abused.
Some very impressive -- albeit horrific in content -- reporting in today's paper on the prisoner abuse scandal. However, don't you worry a little that in the continued emphasis on that story you're paying too little attention to the growing Chalabi scandal. The spy allegations, the huge amounts of money we've paid him over the years, the role he played in getting us into Iraq in the first place. At least in my opinion, those details have really not received sufficient coverage recently in The Post.
Leonard Downie Jr.: We are continuing to report on Chalabi and his activities.
San Francisco, Calif.:
Why has there been such a big difference between The Washington Post's photo-journalistic coverage of Abu Ghraib prison and the coverage of the Nick Berg slaughter?
Leonard Downie Jr.: I don't think we covered them differently. We have published a number of stories about Berg, his activities in Iraq and his murder.
Thank you for your newspaper's outstanding coverage of Iraq. Given reports that coalition forces abused three Reuters employees in Iraq earlier this year, have there been any concerns about the safety of Post-affiliated correspondents in Iraq?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We are very concerned every day about the safety of our reporters because, as we have frequently reported, Iraq is currently a very unstable place.
You won't say how you got the photos, but
isn't that a big part of the story? If you got
them from a government source, readers
like me wonder, is this part of a strategy
to further weaken the Administration, or
perhaps the timing with Bush on Capitol
Hill yesterday, this is part of a decision "to
get it all out now." Won't you shed some
more light on how you got these photos
and the motivations of your source?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We cannot ever violate agreements made with our sources, but I can say that our reporting is not part of a government strategy of any kind.
New York, N.Y.:
As you probably recall, the Post was reasonably vocal in
its support for U.S. military intervention in Iraq. Have
these recent revelations changed the attitudes of editorial
board members who were previously supportive of our
military's conduct in Iraq?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have a strict "church-state" separation here between our news reporting, for which I am responsible, and our editorial page, for which Fred Hiatt, is responsible, so I cannot speak for the editorial board.
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.:
You said you conduct polls to evaluate the public's reaction to the abuse story. What is that reaction? Is the majority of the public truly outraged? How much of it is simply embarrassment at the U.S. being caught?
washingtonpost.com: Recent Polls
Leonard Downie Jr.: We will be seeking public reaction in future polling.
Looks like trial by media to me. I don't intend to make light of what happened in Iraq, but don't you think that The Post is just feeding a lynch mob? It would be better to wait for a court to establish what happened, and go from there.
Leonard Downie Jr.: It is our First Amendment responsibility to inform the public as fully as possible regardless of what happens in courts or, in this case, inside the military justice system. To cite just one example, that is what we did with Watergate.
Thanks for having the chat. What do you say to criticism that you and other major media outlets have a double standard - That you'll show abuses by Americans but not of Americans (Berg, Pearl).
Leonard Downie Jr.: We have reported extensively on abuse of Americans as well, particularly the murders of Berg and Pearl. If you are referring to the fact that we did not publish photos or video of the moment when each of them was killed, we also would not do that if the victim were not American. That would violate our standards of taste.
The prisoners' own accounts of the abuse is certainly newsworthy. Not so sure about yet another graphic photo. The public is more than aware of the kind of things that happened. Going forward, will every article with a new piece of information about Abu Ghraib be accompanied by another gruesome photo on the front page of the Washington Post?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We make fresh decisions each day.
St. Louis, Mo.:
Your decision to publish the photos and accounts was the only ethical option under the circumstances, although it must have been a difficult decision indeed. The Post is to be commended for its role in sustaining a free and open society.
Leonard Downie Jr.: I appreciate your comment. And I thank everyone for participating in this discussion.
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