The facts surrounding the bombshell published today by the Los Angeles Times are not at all in dispute:
* The Times obtained photos portraying soldiers of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division hamming it up with the remains of Afghan suicide bombers.
* It got the photos from a “soldier in the unit who was himself concerned that the photos reflected dysfunction, in discipline and a breakdown in leadership that compromised the safety of the troops,” Times editor Davan Maharaj said in a web chat about the story.
* The Times had no concerns about the photos’ authenticity. It published two of the 18 photos furnished by the source, to whom it has granted anonymity.
* The Pentagon opposed publication of the photos. A statement released today explains why:
“[Defense Secretary Leon Panetta] is also disappointed that despite our request not to publish these photographs, the Los Angeles Times went ahead. The danger is that this material could be used by the enemy to incite violence against U.S. and Afghan service members in Afghanistan.”
“Disappointed” sounds rather mild, as well it should be. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Times and Pentagon officials declined to specify just how much pressure the government exerted on the newspaper to keep the pictures under wraps.
Whatever the case, the Los Angeles Times did the full sweep of due diligence here. It checked with the Pentagon on the story, it vetted the photos, and it showed restraint in publishing only “a small but representative selection” of the photos, in the words of Maharaj.
The position of Pentagon leaders isn’t hard to rationalize. Absent the publicity, they’d have no dangerous externalities to guard against, and they could proceed with appropriate disciplinary measures in any case.
Yet there’s a pivotal figure at the center of this story: $500 billion-plus. That’s what the United States has spent over more than a decade in the war in Afghanistan. The people who are footing that bill have a right to know what they’re funding. In this case, they’re funding yet another on-the-ground scandal. Public support for the war is sagging, and the Los Angeles Times photos won’t buoy it.
Once they stop their pointless scolding of the Times, military officials tend to say the right things about the episode. They are condemning the misconduct. They are deploring it, saying it doesn’t comport broadly with how the war is being prosecuted. One called it “morally repugnant.” As Lt. Col. Peggy Kageleiry told me, “This behavior doesn’t depict the Army’s values.”
The Pentagon is saying that U.S. forces in Afghanistan are “taking security measures to guard against” whatever reprisals may arise. If they do, don’t blame the Los Angeles Times.