My late and great friend Abbie Hoffman used to open his lectures with a bet, what he called the Journalist Challenge. He offered $100 to any reporter present who could file a story on his talk with less than three errors. He was a chronic gambler all his life, but he told me that this was one bet he never lost.
Mistakes by reporters are common as we go about the rush of making deadlines with what is often acknowledged as "the first draft of history." But sometimes it is more than the facts that get messed up: Sometimes a whole story gets sanitized or half-told. When that story involves hundreds of dead people, as the one I am about to tell you about does, it becomes essential to try to understand why some in the media avoid or fail to fully investigate odious war crimes.
How can so much of the world press, now covering the Afghan War, miss so much of the forest for the trees? I am talking about the apparent massacre of 600 prisoners in late November. I will revisit the details in a moment, but permit me a flashback — to another war, the one in Vietnam, and an infamous hamlet called My Lai, set off in the rice fields of the countryside.
"Q: Babies? A: Babies"
The world can't forget what happened there, how American soldiers, pressed by their commanders to escalate their "enemy kill rate," shot down civilians in a ditch, even as other soldiers in passing helicopter landed and, at gunpoint, forced the unit, under the command of Lieutenant William Calley (later pardoned by the even more criminal Richard Nixon), to stop the massacre. There was a famous antiwar poster about the event that was briefly plastered in the subways of New York. It featured a color photo of the bodies of the victims, men, women and children. Designed by Lee Baxandall, the poster was memorable for its simplicity. Above and below the grisly picture was a short question and answer: "Q: Babies? A: Babies."
That massacre did not go unreported thanks to the late Ron Ridenhour who, with the help of a young Seymour Hersh, had to set up their own news agency, the Dispatch News Service, to disseminate the story of an atrocity that the Pentagon at first denied happened. Most U.S. media ignored it until they no longer could. To this day, U.S. military commanders hate most journalists because of exposés like this, which embarrass them even though the military did prosecute the crimes later. The truth is that war-making doesn't always look very good in the light of independent scrutiny. Significantly, a year ago, CBS's "60 Minutes" went back to My Lai with some of the soldiers who witnessed what happened, who now say their own government deserves to be tried for war crimes.
Where are War Crimes Reporters Today?
Where were the U.S. mainstream media outlets when crimes of similar moral gravitas were being committed right in front of them today? I am talking about that so-called prison revolt in the old fort called Qalai Janghi in Mazar-i-Sharif, which was only fully extinguished by the end of last week. To be sure, these men were not civilians, but armed combatants. But once in custody, they must be treated according to the Geneva convention. A fuller probe is warranted.
Thanks to the British press, the story has received more than the usual episodic treatment, with a story here or there but no cumulative impact. While Time and CNN covered it, the UK media offered in-depth analysis not only of the horror but its meaning in terms of possible war crimes. The BBC, Times of London, Independent and Guardian were all over the grisly story in graphic detail, while most American outlets played it only as more bang bang.
Justin Huggler wrote in London's Independent last Friday about its grisly aftermath. "They were still carrying the bodies out yesterday. So many of them were strewn around the old fortress. We saw one go past whose foot had been half-torn off and was hanging from his leg by a shred of flesh. The expression on the face of the dead man was so clear that it was hard to believe he was dead until you saw the gaping red hole in the side of his forehead. The stench of rotting human flesh had become overpowering; at times, it was hard to breathe. But questions remained as they cleared away the bodies of slaughtered foreign Taliban fighters believed to be loyal to Osama bin Laden."
The Media And The Massacre
Let's turn to those questions in a minute since this column is more about media than massacres. And it is also about how some journalists performed like modern-day Ridenhours and Hershes, while most did not. For one thing, few journalists explained the run-up to the prison outrage, as in how the Taliban prisoners got there in the first place. On November 25, The New York Times carried a front page photo showing members of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban shaking hands in Konduz and appearing to peacefully resolve a showdown that U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had predicted would be a bloody fight to the finish, an eventuality he seemed to relish in the soundbites I saw. At that time, the Northern Alliance, advised and outfitted by the U.S. and Britain, had the town surrounded and was moving in for the kill — until, that is, talks broke out and a peace of sorts was brokered.
As I discovered from the Sunday New York Times, the two sides had worked out a deal. The Taliban forces believed they would be treated fairly if they gave up. A photo underscored the point. The caption: "Northern Alliance troops near Amirabad watched as a convoy of surrendering Taliban soldiers from Konduz passed through the front lines." These men were on their way to the Northern Alliance fort at Mazar-i Sharif as part of what the Times called, "a script for surrender." The Times correspondent also reported that General Rashid Dostum had promised to turn them over to the UN and international courts.
This was reported without clarification. What "international courts" were not specified. I shook my head. The Times knew there were no international courts in place. They also knew the UN had no provisions to accept prisoners. Why didn't the newspaper of record mention this? Was this some scam? Had the Taliban's feared foreign troops been suckered? The Times then added, rather obliquely, "It was unclear if his (Dostum's) view would hold." The next sentence seems to reflect the "catch 'em and kill 'em" orientation of the Alliance and the Pentagon, which was cheering them on: "Other Northern Alliance Leaders say they want to try the men in Afghan criminal courts and possibly put them to death." Again, the Times failed to point out that there were no such courts functioning either.
That was Saturday. The foreign troops surrendered presumably with the expectation that they would be turned over to the UN. Maybe they didn't know better. Maybe they believed Dostum, who has fought on every side over the long years of combat in that country, with the Russians against the Mujadids and then with the Mujadids against the Russians, with the Taliban and now against it. He is known as a killer par excellence. His forces slaughtered 50,000 people between l992 and '96 in Kabul, leading to many Afghans welcoming the Taliban as saviors. Now he was wheeling and dealing with the Taliban, cajoling them to stop fighting. Those fanatical fighters believed they had a deal. The next day, when they discovered they didn't, the world would find out that it had a problem. A deadly one.
A Revolting Revolt
What happened next? Here is the reconstruction by the Independent's Huggler, published five days later:
"Bound to one another, the prisoners were taken in pickup trucks to Qalai Janghi, the 19th-century mud-walled fortress that Dostum had used as his headquarters after the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to his Northern Alliance forces three weeks previously.
"It was on Saturday that what started as the relatively peaceful surrender of the northern Afghan Taliban stronghold of Konduz suddenly started to go out of control inside the fort. Before the eyes of Western reporters, two foreign Taliban prisoners, in the process of being registered by the Red Cross, detonated hand grenades, killing themselves and two senior aides to General Dostum and slightly injuring the ITN news reporter Andrea Catherwood.
"It was not the first time that we had heard of bin Laden's 'foreigners' committing suicide rather than be taken alive. The Northern Alliance claimed that a group of around 60 of them jumped into a river and drowned themselves. Another group were found kneeling in positions of prayer, each with a single bullet wound from behind. A Northern Alliance commander alleged that one of them had killed all of the others in a suicide pact before turning the gun on himself.
"But there were always fears that the stories might have been invented to cover up Northern Alliance massacres of the foreign fighters. Nor was it the first time that surrendering Taliban had not been properly disarmed. Over the past few weeks, journalists in Afghanistan have watched repeatedly as Taliban who had surrendered were allowed to head into Northern Alliance-held towns, waving their Kalashnikovs and rocket-launchers triumphantly in the air. This time, however, defiance grew into mayhem, culminating in the scenes of trucks piled high with human bodies that we saw heading out of Qalai Janghi yesterday."
The Plot Thickens
OK. So far we have two Taliban prisoners, allowed to take arms into a prison — how crazy is that? — and then attack their jailers. Time magazine reported that they were outraged when they saw Western reporters. Perhaps they thought the UN would be there. But that was just one, contained incident.
Huggler continues: "The next day, Sunday, the prisoners — many of them with their arms tied behind their backs — were being herded into a room for interrogation before two CIA agents [Mike Spann and one identified only as Dave]. Did they fear retribution for the previous day's murder of the two Northern Alliance commanders? Or was it, as another account suggests, the mere sight of two Americans — from the foreign fighters' point of view, sworn enemies of bin Laden — that provoked the bloodbath that followed?
"The incompetence of the Northern Alliance soldiers — who, guided by the U.S. and British special forces, failed to search the prisoners properly and thus allowed them to smuggle in knives and grenades hidden in their clothes — must be seen as a key factor in the disaster. The men were also housed next to the fortress's well-stocked armory."
Enter the CIA agent, now being celebrated as America's first dead hero in many media outlets. Why is he there? Not to hand the prisoners over to a nonexistent UN presence, to be sure. He is there as an interrogator, and you can perhaps imagine what interrogation means in these circumstances.
Now we have an account from the Taliban side. One of those feared "foreign" troops turned out not to be so foreign. He is 20-year-old American citizen John Walker, a.k.a. Abdul Hamid, now in a military hospital as a POW in U.S. hands. He told Newsweek's Colin Soloway, "Early in the morning, they began taking us out, slowly, one by one into the compound. Some of the Majahdeen (Taliban) were scared. They thought we were all going to be killed. I saw two Americans there. They were taking pictures with a digital camera and a video camera. As soon as the last of us was taken out, someone either pulled a knife or threw a grenade at the guards and got their guns and started shooting." (My hunch is that the fight in the prison will be nothing compared to the fight by agents, studios and TV companies for the rights to his story.)
Who Fired First?
BBC's "Newsnight" interviewed Oliver August, correspondent for The Times, London, in Mazar-i-Sharif, who said that Spann and his CIA colleague, Dave, were thought (by reporters on the scene) to have set off the violence by aggressively interrogating foreign Taliban prisoners and asking, "Why did you come to Afghanistan?" This really pissed off the Taliban captives, who probably wanted to ask them the same thing. August said their questions were answered by one prisoner jumping forward and announcing, "We're here to kill you." The Guardian's Mazar-i-Sharif correspondent blamed the CIA for failing "on entering the fort to observe the first rule of espionage: keep a low profile." Rashmee X. Ahmed of the Times of India reported that "August said Spann subsequently pulled his gun and his CIA colleague shot three prisoners dead in cold blood before losing control of the situation." This report was filed by a member of a Murdoch-owned outlet hardly sympathetic to Islamic militancy. Other would-be observers like Amnesty International and the Red Cross, which has a duty to insure that prisoners of war are treated according to law, asked to observe. They were denied entrance.
According to Ahmed, "Spann was then 'kicked, beaten and bitten to death,' the journalists said, in an account of the ferocity of the violence that lasted four days, leaving more than 500 people dead and the fort littered with 'bodies, shrapnel and shell casings.'"
The fort was bombed, U.S. air strikes called in by the Northern Alliance's U.S. advisors. One of them killed Northern Alliance troops. All of this was detailed on British TV and in the media there. But not in the USA. On December 3, the New York Post reported that "Northern Alliance forces slaughtered more than 600 prisoners." Somehow the U.S. role was omitted in a blatant rewrite of the incident. The possibility that these men had revolted because they feared execution without trial — a not unreasonable fear given the Northern Alliance's track record in the past and as recently as their bloody "liberation" of Mazar-i-Sharif with hundreds killed — wasn't cited anywhere. I am not rationalizing their fanaticism, just noting that their motives and the larger context needed more explication. The Western media had already demonized them, but the circumstances of this incident were reported but unexplained.
What We Saw
On Tuesday night we saw the bodies on ABC's World News Tonight and other outlets. We saw front pages stories in the New York Post and Daily News honoring Spann, but no details of why this revolt started. As news of this incident — without any reference to the fact that massacring prisoners is a violation of international law — started getting airplay on CNN, it triggered my memory of an atrocity closer to home, the massacre at Attica Prison in upstate New York in 1971, which I covered back in my radio days. It was also initially blamed on the bloodthirsty prisoners who slashed the necks of the guards. That claim was later disproved and it was shown to be an execution by the New York State Police. I wondered if Qalai Janghi would become an Afghan Attica. (Incidentally, last year, almost 30 years later, the state was forced by the courts to pay compensation to the survivors.)
But issues of responsibility and allegations of war crimes had still not become a major U.S. media focus as of Friday. The New York Times downplayed the suggestion that this was a war crime by reporting, "No major human rights group has its own monitors in Afghanistan, and their officials agree that in a war with few credible witnesses, and with some of the Taliban soldiers clearly fanatical, the exact circumstances of such killings are murky."
Later, Amnesty in London would call for a full probe but Human Rights Watch in New York was more wishy-washy: "Any summary execution of prisoners is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention, but there are a lot of gray areas," said Sidney Jones, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "For example, there has been a lot of concern raised that dozens of the dead prisoners in the fort had their hands bound. But that doesn't mean they were summarily executed, and we have nobody on the ground to investigate." I saw reports of men with bullet holes through their heads, execution-style, and later, heard accounts of Northern Alliance troops prying gold teeth out of their mouths.
The failure to condemn this outrageous conduct infuriated The Independent's veteran Middle East watcher Robert Fisk, who was equally scornful of the media and the military. His words deserve more than brief quotation:
Are We War Criminals?
"We are becoming war criminals in Afghanistan. The U.S. Air Force bombs Mazar-i-Sharif for the Northern Alliance, and our heroic Afghan allies — who slaughtered 50,000 people in Kabul between 1992 and 1996 — move into the city and execute up to 300 Taliban fighters. The report is a footnote on the television satellite channels, a 'nib' in journalistic parlance. Perfectly normal, it seems. The Afghans have a 'tradition' of revenge. So, with the strategic assistance of the USAF [U.S. Air Force], a war crime is committed.
"Now we have the Mazar-i-Sharif prison 'revolt,' in which Taliban inmates opened fire on their Alliance jailers. U.S. Special Forces — and, it has emerged, British troops — helped the Alliance to overcome the uprising and, sure enough, CNN tells us some prisoners were 'executed' trying to escape. It is an atrocity.
"The Americans have even less excuse for this massacre. For the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, stated quite specifically during the siege of the city that U.S. air raids on the Taliban defenders would stop 'if the Northern Alliance requested it.' Leaving aside the revelation that the thugs and murderers of the Northern Alliance were now acting as air controllers to the USAF in its battle with the thugs and murderers of the Taliban, Mr. Rumsfeld's incriminating remark places Washington in the witness box of any war-crimes trial over Konduz. The U.S. were acting in full military cooperation with the Northern Alliance militia.
"Most television journalists, to their shame, have shown little or no interest in these disgraceful crimes. Cozying up to the Northern Alliance, chatting to the American troops, most have done little more than mention the war crimes against prisoners in the midst of their reports. What on earth has gone wrong with our moral compass since 11 September?"
The Need For Continuing Coverage
What indeed? This atrocity may come to stand for this war that the U.S. seems to be "winning" (if wars are ever fully won) in the same way that My Lai came to symbolize the war we lost. At My Lai, there was a journalist on the ground with the courage to blow the whistle. Only the British press has done so this time. As Amnesty International and the UN's Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson demand an investigation, let's hope this issue will receive better coverage here in the States.
There are laws governing the treatment of prisoners. Imagine the outcry in the U.S. if U.S. prisoners in a Taliban jail had revolted and been bombed or fired upon. As Human Rights Day approaches on December 10, Washington must be held accountable for its abuses just as we demand that the Taliban and the terrorists be punished for theirs.
Let me be clear: In upholding the primacy of international law, I am not excusing Taliban crimes. Scenes of splattered bodies of men in captivity make better recruiting videos for bin Laden than all his in-cave pronouncements combined. They erode the idea that somehow America's technologically advanced campaign for "justice" is morally superior to the Taliban or Al Qaeda's cruder terror tactics.
Trying To Kill The Survivors
What is amazing is that despite all the bombardments and the killings, 60 prisoners survived in the fort's subcellar. When they were first discovered, Newsweek reports, "Alliance soldiers poured diesel fuel into the basement and lit it, on the assumption that any remaining Taliban would be killed by the fire and the fumes. When this incineration strategy failed, they were washed out when their basement bunker was flooded with freezing water. (Now Defense Secretary Rumsfeld says that the U.S. may use gas to "smoke out" bin Laden if U.S. troops find him hiding in any of the caves they are blasting, amidst fears of significant collateral damage from folks living in the vicinity.)
Coverage of these attacks and crime is trickling out, largely because an American was among the captives. The lack of careful, thorough coverage by the U.S. media is a crime in its own right against the public's right to know. Today's "Turbanators," as one satirist recently characterized President Bush in a mock movie ad modeled on Schwartzenegger's "Terminator," might play more by the same international rules of war if they knew that the media would hold their feet to the fire if they didn't. The lack of government information about the war is bad enough. The U.S. media's failure to fully investigate this alleged war crime makes them complicit in a cover-up.