March 21, 2011

Army Braces for Backlash Over Photos of Stryker Soldiers with Corpses in Afghanistan

Early in their investigation into possible war crimes, Army sleuths realized the explosive potential of photos taken of two Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers who posed next to the body of an Afghan who they have been accused of murdering.

So the Army went to extraordinary lengths to suppress their disclosure in a digital era when images quickly go global.

Investigators searched soldiers' computer hard drives, thumb drives and Facebook pages. They visited family members and friends who received some of the photos back home. Once all the images were collected, they were stored in a secure space at Lewis-McChord and placed under a protective court order.

The Army's efforts to keep these photos secret ended in failure. Copies leaked to Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine, were published in print Sunday and were free for online viewing by Monday.

Bracing for a possible backlash in Afghanistan, the Army issued an apology for the photos, saying they depict "actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the U.S. Army."

"We apologize for the distress these photos cause," the Army statement said. "The actions portrayed in these photographs remain under investigation and are now the subject of ongoing U.S. court-martial proceedings, in which the accused are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty."

The three images released include a January 2010 photo of Spc. Jeremy Morlock, of Wasilla, Alaska, grinning as he reaches down to grab a corpse by the head, whose face was blurred by Der Spiegel in the published image. A second photo depicts Pfc. Andrew Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, kneeling next to the corpse, which is identified as that of Gul Mudin, a farmer's son.

Morlock and Holmes are two of five soldiers from a Western Washington-based platoon accused of participating in the murders of three unarmed Afghan civilians in January, February and May 2010, then staging the deaths so they looked like battlefield casualties.

The photos have been released at a time when U.S.-Afghan relations already are fraught with tensions over recent inadvertent civilian casualties caused by American forces.

Der Spiegel reported that NATO, under U.S. leadership, has been preparing for 100 days for possible publication of the photos and that the war-crimes cases were taken up by Vice President Joseph Biden in a conversation with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Holmes' attorney, Dan Conway, says his client was ordered to pose for the photo. "He was told to get in the photo, so he got in the photo," Conway said. "That doesn't make him a murderer."

Holmes has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge against him, saying he was given an order to open fire on the Afghan and was unaware that he was not an enemy combatant. Morlock's attorneys declined to comment on the photos. Morlock, whose court-martial is scheduled to start Wednesday, is expected to strike a plea bargain that could result in a sentence of up to 24 years and an agreement to testify against other soldiers.

In investigative documents reviewed by The Seattle Times, soldiers say images were passed around freely by Morlock and others.

"He [Morlock] would give them to anyone who would ask. He didn't try to hide them," Spc. Alexander Christy, a platoon member, told investigators.

The images published by Der Spiegel were part of a broader pool of photos and video taken by soldiers. They included a videotaped scene of another soldier, Spc. Corey Moore, stabbing the corpse of a dead Taliban fighter. Such images also may have reached soldiers of the 5th Brigade (Stryker), 2nd Infantry Division.

Der Spiegel reports obtaining some 4,000 images, but has not disclosed the source. In an interview with The Associated Press, a magazine spokesman said editors obscured the faces of the Afghan victims so they could not be identified.

"We needed to document [the accusations] in some form and were as restrained as possible," Hans-Ulrich Stoldt told AP.

(The Seattle Times decided to publish the Der Spiegel photos, also circulated online by news organizations in the United States and elsewhere, as part of its ongoing coverage of alleged war crimes against Afghan civilians by soldiers stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The Times will be covering the court-martial proceedings against the accused soldiers and believes the photos provide information and context that words alone do not.)

Monday was a holiday in Afghanistan, and there were no reports of protests or other incidents related to the publication of the photos, according to a NATO spokesman in Kabul.

"We are proceeding with business at hand," the spokesman said. "We expect most of the story to unfold at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where those suspected of the crimes are standing trial."

The photos are expected to gain much wider distribution in Afghanistan in coming days. One concern is whether Karzai, an emotional and sometimes unpredictable politician, will make public statements that will stoke Afghan anger.

"The big question is how much the local press picks up on this, and how that is spurred by Karzai," said Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, where he met with Karzai. "I am hopeful that this will not blow up, but predicting that with confidence is more than I want to do."

Karzai recently lashed out over civilian-casualties incidents that included the accidental killing of nine children during a NATO airstrike.

In 2010, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported 2,777 conflict-related civilian deaths, an increase of 15 percent from 2009. Taliban and other anti-government forces were linked to 2,080 of those deaths.

Public-diplomacy expert Kristin Lord of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan national-security think tank, said she believes the impact of the photos will be felt beyond Afghanistan.

"The vast majority of Americans and American soldiers will consider these acts despicable and revolting," Lord said.

"But the photographs will have strategic consequences as they are disseminated globally. Their coverage in the media is likely to overwhelm coverage of the many more positive but less visible acts that Americans engage in every day."