Digital evidence

Regarding the torture by Americans of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, yesterday’s New York Times quoted a White House official as saying, “When you see the pictures, it takes on a proportion of gravity that would require a much more extreme response than the way it was being handled” (6 May 2004 p1).

That’s dismaying. Mere knowledge of the torture seems to have reached President Bush as early as January, General Taguba’s report was complete in early March, and the Red Cross has apparently been trying to draw the attention of senior administration officials to the problem for months. But it’s only once photographs were leaked that the knowledge became, as it were, actionable.

In this case, the technology that has shifted the United States from a text-based to an image-based culture has also offered compensation, by making possible a new kind of evidence. The most recent Iraq war is the first to have been waged since digital cameras became cheap enough for the military to put them in the hands of a wide range of personnel, and bureaucratic control has not yet caught up with the ease with which the photographs can be taken and distributed. Nor have journalists, who were surprised to discover that soldiers’ coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base had been photographed not only by amateurs but by the military’s own combat photographers, most of whose work is deposited in archives. Although to my knowledge no mention has yet been made of it, the editors and journalists at the Washington Post, CBS, and the New Yorker who have been given digital photos of the torture in Iraq probably know the exact date and time of day, down to the split-second, that every one of those photographs was taken. Digital cameras automatically store time information, along with camera model, aperture settings, and other technical details, in the file with every picture, and it’s unlikely that the amateurs who took these photos would have known how to strip that information out or would have wanted to.

Is it a fluke, or a permanent new state of affairs? In the next war, will there be fewer cameras and a new skittishness about using them?

Update (5/9). To support his claim that the torture was instigated by rogue officers acting without the knowledge of their superiors, Lt. Col. Jerry L. Phillabaum says that timecodes indicate that the photographs were all taken “between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.” over a two-week period. If reporters with access were to open the image files with the software that came with their own digital cameras, they would be able to confirm or deny Phillabaum’s statement. Further update (5/12). In his second report on Abu Ghraib for The New Yorker, Seymour Hersh puts a group of photos into narrative sequence by using the “time sequence embedded in the digital files”; he is able to determine that the photos were “taken by two different cameras over a twelve-minute period on the evening of December 12, 2003.”