by Danny Schecter
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.