Sue the Messenger
By Joel Patenaude
January 17, 2005
“Those AP reporters who published those photos (and their apologists) are no better than street scum and deserve a hearty dose of street justice,” writes “Boot Hill,” the pseudonym of a visitor to the right-wing chat room FreeRepublic.com. The reporter in question is Seth Hettena, a reporter for the Associated Press’ San Diego bureau.
What raised Boot Hill’s ire was a December 3 article detailing Hettena’s discovery of more than 40 photos that appear to show Navy SEALs cheerfully abusing Iraqi prisoners. Many of the images were date-stamped May 2003—months before even worse treatment of Iraqis took place at Abu Ghraib prison. Hettena found the pictures by using a simple Google keyword search, which led him to a Web site where the photos were posted by one of the soldiers’ wives.
Hettena’s report spoke volumes about why these photos of the SEALs’ “approved procedures” for “legitimate intelligence-gathering purposes” (as Navy Cmdr. Jeff Bender described the acts pictured) are not likely to win the United States new allies in its war on terror.
“These and other photos found by the AP appear to show the immediate aftermath of raids on civilian homes,” Hettena wrote. “A mug shot shows a man with an automatic weapon pointed at his head and a gloved thumb jabbed into his throat. In many photos, faces [of the captives] have been blacked out. What appears to be blood drips from the heads of some. A family huddles in a room in one photo, while others show debris and upturned furniture.”
Another photo—reposted by an approving FreeRepublic.com reader in late December (“I don’t know if this is one of them, but I love it!!!”)—showed a soldier grinning ear-to-ear and giving the thumbs-up while sitting between two bound and hooded Iraqi captives.
Instead of apologizing for these actions, the victimizers claimed victimhood. On December 28 a half-dozen Navy SEALs and two of their wives filed a civil lawsuit against Hettena and the AP. The SEALs seek unspecified damages and a court injunction against further use of the photos or identification of the commandos by the AP. The plaintiffs, none of whom are named in the lawsuit, claim the AP invaded their privacy and intentionally caused them emotional harm. Unmentioned is what became of the Iraqi prisoners or the extent of the harm done to them.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer claims the faces of most of the captive “insurgents and terrorists” photographed were obscured by the SEALs out of “respect” for them—a courtesy the AP didn’t extend to the SEALs before transmitting the pictures. But, as the AP explained in a January 5 statement, the wire service doesn’t alter photos and “the expressions of the servicemen are a key part of the story.”
Due to the lawsuit and a directive from his editors and their lawyers, Hettena could not comment for this story. But Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, notes that all Hettena and the AP did was republish what was already publicly available. “There is no question [the AP] had a legal right” to transmit the photos for publication, Dalglish says. “Not in any way, shape or form was it an invasion of [the SEALs’] privacy.”
The Navy has so far distanced itself from the SEALs’ lawsuit, calling it a private matter. But if only to avoid further embarrassment or public scrutiny of the SEALs’ operations in Iraq, Dalglish says, “I wouldn’t be surprised if the military got involved” to encourage an out-of-court settlement. “This thing could get monumentally messy.”
An editorial in the New York Post said the SEALs “at the very least, deserve an apology” from the AP. But the tabloid got it backward. It’s the SEALs who owe their fellow servicemen and the American people an apology. Their acts have diminished all of us in the eyes of the world.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports magazine and a former colleague of Seth Hettena.