Potential for a 'time bomb'

As the White House struggles to contain the situation, there is fear more damaging pictures will surface



May 9, 2004

WASHINGTON - In one photo, an American soldier leans down to a dead Iraqi prisoner and turns to the camera with "a 'Hi Mom' type of look," said one person who has seen the picture.

Others are of an "extremely pornographic" nature - not of abuse, but still damning because they show American soldiers in Iraq having sex with each other, people familiar with the images said. Still others show even more graphic scenes of violence and cruelty than already known to the world, reportedly including rape and brutal beatings. There also is video.

And then there are the photos the Pentagon never has seen, images believed still in the possession of American soldiers and that investigators are seeking.

As Bush administration officials struggle to contain the damage, they realize that any of these potentially thousands of images could be the next to surface publicly and become the latest outrage in the Iraqi prison abuse scandal.

"It is a time bomb," said one worried defense official.

About the only thing Pentagon officials do know is that they expect it to get worse, with the inevitable release of more heinous images, pictures that have not yet lost their power to shock.

Even after a week of seeing the images of naked Iraqi men piled atop one another, a new image Thursday - of Pfc. Lynndie England holding a leash around the neck of an Iraqi man - added a troubling new dimension to the abuse.

It is the potential for this slow drip of images that worries some in the Pentagon, because it suggests that the scandal could drag on for weeks or months. "The worst case is that somebody publishes one or two or three images every couple of days," said a second defense official. "You had that same visceral reaction to that one [the leash photo] that you had to the first one."

Some defense officials also have wondered whether it would be possible to release some images officially as a way to expose the full breadth and nature of the abuse, but one official noted the constraints against release, because the photos are evidence in a criminal investigation. Seven soldiers, including England, face criminal charges.

The White House kept up its damage control efforts yesterday, with President George W. Bush using his weekly radio address to blame the abuses on the "wrongdoing of a few." In the Democratic response, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a former presidential contender, said "America must change course" in Iraq and make substantive amends for the scandal, such as dismantling Abu Ghraib prison where the abuses occurred.

The U.S. military, however, will continue to operate Abu Ghraib despite calls from some lawmakers to shutter it, the commander of U.S. detention facilities in Iraq said yesterday. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller also has said the United States plans to cut the population at Abu Ghraib from 3,800 to 2,000.

In his dramatic testimony Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sought to brace the public for a new wave of disturbing images in coming days, revealing for the first time the existence of video pictures and even more "sadistic" photos than those already published.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) took up his theme, telling reporters "we're talking about rape and murder here. We're not just talking about giving people a humiliating experience."

A Senate source later said that the video does not show rapes or murders, an account corroborated by a senior Army official - who said he believes the video segments are similar to the type of files that can be e-mailed or viewed on the Internet. But neither source said exactly what is on the video.

NBC News has reported that additional photos showed U.S. soldiers treating dead bodies inappropriately, beating prisoners nearly to death, and the apparent rape of a female Iraqi prisoner, as well as the rape of young Iraqi boys by Iraqi prison guards. Defense officials couldn't confirm that account.

During his testimony, Rumsfeld made clear his exasperation with dealing with a "radioactive" scandal, when images shot by a digital camera can be beamed around the world almost instantaneously by e-mail or stored by the hundreds on a CD.

"We're functioning ... in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon," Rumsfeld said.

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