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Abu Ghraib photos reveal benefits, problems of ubiquitous cameras

BAGHDAD, Iraq—An American general's bodyguard carries his camera in his ammo vest. A U.S. Army medic tucks his camera in his first aid bag. Soldiers protecting convoys bring cameras along inside their Humvees.

From the prison camps to the front lines, pocket cameras, many digital ones capable of whizzing uncensored images home, are nearly as standard among American soldiers' gear as rifles and dog tags.

Mostly they're used to take innocuous "Hi Mom" souvenir shots—a smiling soldier in a faraway place.

But, as the Abu Ghraib prison case illustrates, the phenomenon can have unintended consequences—as happened when shots of gleeful guards abusing naked prisoners became public months after the abuse occurred, and even as the Pentagon was trying to deal with the problem quietly, behind the scenes.

Yet no official rules have been released in the year-plus invasion of Iraq governing the use of cameras, or restricting specifically what soldiers may or may not photograph. No one reviews the photos before they are filed across the Internet.

And no one anticipates any rules soon—beyond the admonition that mishandling classified information, even by accident in an otherwise innocent photo is a crime, said a senior military officer, speaking on the condition that he not be identified.

"You can't make all the cell phones go away. You can't make all the digital cameras go away. The genie's out of the bottle," the officer said.

Why the photos at Abu Ghraib were taken is still the subject of discussion. Official military reports on the abuse offer no explanation. Some people have suggested that they may have been shot as part of efforts to humiliate detainees or intimidate other prisoners. But many soldiers think they may just as easily have been meant merely as mementos.

Whatever their purpose, the photos highlight the benefits and problems of technologies ubiquitous in Iraq, including cell and satellite phones, Internet cafes and digital cameras.

They let soldiers keep in touch with home better than ever before. But they have also stirred controversy and have unintended consequences.

The same satellite phones that soldiers use to let the folks know that they're okay means thousands more soldiers may inadvertently let slip a unit's progress and whereabouts.

Families find out faster that a loved one was unhurt in the latest blast; but the unofficial phone chain also means news of deaths and injuries can be blurted out.

The same Internet that keeps troops up on sport scores and celebrity gossip—a morale booster—also lets soldiers send uncomfortable, unsanitized battlefield images home. These sometimes land on the Web.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sounded like he was blaming technology for letting the Abu Ghraib scandal spin out of Pentagon control when he testified recently before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"We are constantly finding that we have procedures and habits that have evolved over the years from the last century that don't really fit the 21st century. They don't fit the Information Age. They don't fit a time when people are running around with digital cameras," he said.

"With 24-hour news and digital cameras, something like this can have an impact that is just enormous."

Everywhere you look in Iraq, it seems, a soldier has a camera stuffed inside his camouflage gear. Even strictly disciplined soldiers on alert for a roadside bomb as they cruise in convoys can't resist popping out of their armor for a souvenir snapshot for home.

"I have to be here. I have to risk my life," said Army Spc. Aaron Humphrey, 22, an artilleryman under the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. "I have to see this stuff. I want my family to see it too."

Humphrey picked up his 3.1 megapixel digital camera for $110 at a local shop, and brought it along on a Humvee patrol in central Baghdad the other day.

Humphrey says he restricts his photography to bombed out buildings, indoor pictures of fellow soldiers as well as things he has seen around the city and the country. He said his commanders offered minimal guidelines on the use of cameras. "The only thing they said, really, to us is if we're somewhere we've got to do our job, you don't want to be fumbling around with a camera," he said.

Spc. William Castillo, 23, of New York, whose first day at boot camp happened to be Sept. 11, 2001, carries an Internet video camera he had picked up that day. It lets him connect, live, to his family at Internet cafes set up by contractors—and speak real time to his 5-month-old girl.

He also has a disposable camera and has been snapping pictures as he patrols around the city. He plans to mail it home for his family to develop.

But he's unconcerned about security, certain that digital images that the 135,000 troops e-mail home are being monitored to make sure something inappropriate is not sent along. "When I e-mail a picture back home, I'm pretty sure that Customs or someone is tracking them all," he says.

There is, of course, no such electronic check.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CAMERAS


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