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Well, well, well. All sorts of commentary on the importance of photographs surrounding the assassination of Osama bin Laden and President Obama’s announcement in the East Room with reenactment of his speech for the still cameras.

From the White House Situation Room (now with added memes) and Reuters’ bloody gallery (WARNING: Graphic images of corpses) to whether we deserve or need to see bin Laden’s bullet-riddled head. Then there’s Senator Scott Brown’s faux-pas over a hoax photograph. Not to mention the reported different versions of the actual event.

For all the best articles click on the links over on Raw File Blog’s twitter feed, where I’ve been compiling them all day.

There’s still one photo – to be precise its caption – that is bothering me. And it’s this one:

White House photographer, Pete Souza, captioned the image thus: “President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011.”

Except everywhere I’ve seen it used, the inference is that the White House team are watching a live feed of the raid on bin Laden’s compound.

They might be, but I want a SOURCE.

It seems to me this image may have been interpreted as one thing at an early stage and because it the narrative tied to the body language is so seductive, no-one has chosen to question it.

I think the reading of the image is massively altered depending on whether you think they’re watching murders in progress or whether they are, for example, waiting nervously for the screen to boot up.

Ryan Singel for’s Epicenter blog went as far to say the White House “officials watching what one presumes is the livestream of the Navy Seal raid on Osama’s hideout in Pakistan.

For all the hullabaloo about this image, no-one is actually sure about what is on THAT screen.

So, does anyone have a solid source saying that they are viewing a live feed of the operation?

It’s only fair to compare Obama’s 2009 outing with the big rabbit with George W. Bush’s 2008 appearance.

But sometimes pigment trumps pixels.

Painting by Dan Lacey

“We never sat down, as far as I know, and came up with a grand strategy. Everything was very reactive. That’s how you get to a situation where you pick people up, send them into a netherworld and don’t say, ‘What are we going to do with them afterwards?’ “

Former senior US intelligence officer. (Source)


Mihail Kogalniceanu, Romania (RO) @ 44.36043300, 28.49149700

Mihail Kogalniceanu air base. Romania. @ 44.36043300, 28.49149700


Since 2001, the US has operated a program of rendition, illegal torture and operated a network of secret prisons and CIA “Black Sites”.

Men captured as part of the Bush and Obama administrations’ program were are interrogated, physically & psychologically beaten and denied human rights.

Images of these secret prisons are not common, but I’ve peppered this piece with a few just for the sake of the exercise.

At the top of this article is Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, Romania. It was used for “high-level” detainees from as early as 2005. Beneath is Kiejkuty Stare an illegal CIA prison just 20 miles away from Szymany airport, Poland. (source) It was used as early as 2005 and its function was confirmed in 2007. (source)

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, “the mastermind of 9/11”, claims he was submitted to waterboarding 183 times over a one-month period. New evidence suggests he was interrogated in Poland. (More from Der Spiegel here and here).


Kiejkuty Stare



Khalid Shiekh Mohammed



Diego Garcia Island, Indian Ocean, United Kingdom Territory. Rendition Flights Refuelled on the Island in 2002.

Diego Garcia Island, Indian Ocean, United Kingdom Territory. Rendition Flights Refuelled on the Island in 2002.


The UK Government provided infrastructural support for America’s extraordinary rendition program allowing rendition flights to refuel on Diego Garcia (above), a British territory in the Indian Ocean. (More here and here).

– – –

Below is the plan of a cell used during the 19 month illegal detention of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni national. Salon reports:

Bashmilah’s story also appears to show in clear terms that he was an innocent man. After 19 months of imprisonment and torment at the hands of the CIA, the agency released him with no explanation, just as he had been imprisoned in the first place. He faced no terrorism charges. He was given no lawyer. He saw no judge. He was simply released, his life shattered.

In 2007, Salon did a thorough job in describing his detention and its aftermath, even presenting plans based on Bashmilah’s descriptions of torture and interrogation rooms. No-one knows for certain where these cells were, but it is suspected they were within Afghanistan.


Rendering of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah's first cell in Afghanistan (based on Bashmilah's own drawings). Courtesy of

Exhibit I: Rendering of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah's first cell in Afghanistan (based on Bashmilah's own drawings). Source:



Washington Post

In Afghanistan, the largest CIA covert prison was code-named the Salt Pit, at center left above. (Space Imaging Middle East). Source: Washington Post


The most notorious Black Site in Afghanistan is referred to as ‘The Salt Pit’.

The Salt Pit brings us to Trevor Paglen‘s geography, photography and investigative academics, but first let me point out a couple more excellent resources.

When the details of rendition broke in 2007, Jane Mayer led the exposé with her book The Dark Side. Read a book review here and her extended New Yorker essay here.

FRONTLINE produced this astonishing interactive graphic showing all the illegal prisons and all the US aviation front-companies used for the rendition flights. That map is part of a larger presentation with interviews, time-lines and further resources.

More recently, Anand Gopal has revealed the US military’s still recent tactic against the Taliban in Afghanistan of by-night kidnappings. The result? The US has lost the support of the Afghan people toward the American project. Read America’s Secret Afghan Prisons here.

Just this month, Stephen Lendman summarised the January 26th UN Human Rights Council (HRC) report ‘Joint study on global practices in relation to secret detention in the context of countering terrorism’ which details practices by various countries “including America, by far the world’s worst offender in its war on terror.” The full report is here (Word) or here (pdf).

Lendman’s words The truth is shocking:

“Besides Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, HRC said the CIA runs scores of offshore secret prisons in over 66 countries worldwide for dissidents and alleged terrorists – in Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, India, Pakistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Ethopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Poland, Romania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Thailand, Diego Garcia, and elsewhere.” (Source)

More summary at Talk Left.

Onward. Now, Paglen …


The two images below are by Trevor Paglen. The first is the Salt Pit and the second is a military jail in Kabul. They are also his most ordinary of images … the only images he could capture in the circumstances.

Paglen isn’t primarily concerned with prisons; he is concerned with all the unseen activity of the military industrial complex – aviation companies, air strips, covert ops, air bases, Pentagon annual budget projections, spy satellites, shadow NASA reconnaissance agencies … the list goes on.

After meeting Emiliano Granado last Summer, he posted a good one-stop description of Paglen’s work. Granado also posted some good examples of Paglen’s Limit Telephotography and The Other Night Sky series. Check those out and then skip to Paglen’s lecture at the foot of this post.


The Salt Pit is located in an old brick factory a few miles northeast of Kabul, along an isolated back-road connecting Kabul to Bagram.

The Salt Pit, Shomali Plains Northeast of Kabul, Afghanistan. Trevor Paglen: The Salt Pit is located in an old brick factory a few miles northeast of Kabul, along an isolated back-road connecting Kabul to Bagram.



This site was brought to my attention by Afghan journalists and human rights activists in Kabul. The code name of this site remains unknown.

Black Site, Kabul, Afghanistan. Trevor Paglen: This site was brought to my attention by Afghan journalists and human rights activists in Kabul. The code name of this site remains unknown.



I have waited for a long time for an online presentation of Paglen’s oeuvre to which I could refer PP readers. (Thanks Alejandro!)

It’s quite the thrill to be brought in on Paglen’s sleuth work, as he walks us through the various public records used to piece together the rendition program. If you can spare an hour this weekend, you’ll be thankful for the education!


Paglen’s work is to be published by Aperture in a book titled INVISIBLE. You can see Paglen and publisher Lesley Martin discussing the project here.

… or put another way, the apparently unassailable problem that is Guantanamo only amounts to 2% of the actual problem.

guardian logo

This is only one of the many astounding facts I learnt from following the Guardian’s Slow Torture series.

I particularly valued this half hour podcast in which an expert panel of legal professionals discuss the cyclical, “odious” and often ludicrous procedures for trials based on ‘secret evidence’. Clive Stafford Smith has many valuable things to say about American legal protocols. He has represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay and says that, in the overwhelming majority of cases, ‘secret evidence’ used against terrorism suspects does not stand up to judicial scrutiny.

The majority of the Slow Torture series looks at British ‘secret evidence’ trials, how it affects the lives of terror suspects and the consequent erosion of Britain’s legal reputation:

The UK government’s powers to impose restrictions on terror suspects – without a trial – amounting to virtual house arrest have been condemned as draconian by civil liberties campaigners. In a series of five films, actors read the personal testimonies of those detained under Britain’s secret evidence laws and campaigners and human rights lawyers debate the issues raised.

Basically, the same problems embroiled in the acquisition and control of “sensitive” evidence exist on both sides of the Atlantic and are ultimately putting our societies at more of a long-term risk.

Photography alone is worthless. Interviews, think-pieces, investigation, theatre, video, debate, political fight and direct action make issues reality.

What are we to do with our Gitmo preoccupations when the real problem has been moved to Bagram, Afghanistan by President Obama?

Obama’s decision to quash the release of Iraqi prison torture photographs has welled across the journo networks today. It began as a rumour and then confirmed by the Huffington Post, New York Times and other major news outlets.

Last month, I blogged about ACLUs legal victory and announcement of images release on May 28th. I told you to keep the date in mind as the images were sure to be a thwack on the retina – of course,  not half as bad as some of the thwacks of twisted acts meted out by American rank and file under America military order.

I even went as far to say that Obama – with seeming little control – would possibly suffer at the fate of an early leak. Well, Obama’s done his u-turn and it looks like he might stop their release. He gets some support from Tomasky at the Guardian, but I can’t buy this argument. Obviously, Obama’s worried about the safety of his troops but the rest of us are worried about Cheney et al. getting off scott-free. The official line is that the Abu Ghraib abuses have been investigated fully, but in truth 25 low ranking officers were hung out to dry. There was no accountability further up the chain.

We should bear in mind that these are new images to the public and media, but not to politicians and internal investigators, and this is not the first time images have been suppressed and challenged.

The military’s mood was one of relative calm last month, with army investigators going on record that “these images are not as near as bad as Abu Ghraib”, but some are recalling long forgotten testimonies from 2004, namely by Seymour Hersh, here, here and here.

Hersh alleged that the children of female prisoners were sodomized in front of their mothers. These assertions were made on two occasions in 2004 – during a speech at the University of Chicago and at an ACLU conference.

There were audio files of these speeches online, but they do not seem to be operating. ACLU will have this on file nonetheless. And, in any case, Information Clearing House has a transcript of Hersh’s statements, from which I quote below:

Some of the worst things that happened that you don’t know about. OK? Videos. There are women there. Some of you may have read that they were passing letters out, communications out to their men. This is at [Abu Ghraib], which is about 30 miles from Baghdad — 30 kilometers, maybe, just 20 miles, I’m not sure whether it’s — anyway. The women were passing messages out saying please come and kill me because of what’s happened. And basically what happened is that those women who were arrested with young boys, children, in cases that have been recorded, the boys were sodomized, with the cameras rolling, and the worst above all of them is the soundtrack of the boys shrieking. That your government has, and they’re in total terror it’s going to come out. It’s impossible  to say to yourself, how did we get there, who are we, who are these people that sent us there.

When I did My Lai, I was very troubled, like anybody in his right mind would be about what happened, and I ended up in something I wrote saying, in the end, I said, the people that did the killing were as much victims as the people they killed, because of the scars they had.

I can tell you some of the personal stories of some of the people who were in these units who witnessed this. I can also tell you written complaints were made to the highest officers. And so we’re dealing with an enormous, massive amount of criminal wrong-doing that was covered up at the highest command out there and higher. And we have to get to it, and we will. And we will, I mean, you know, there’s enough out there, they can’t.

And finally, if you thought you’d experienced the depravity of Abu Ghraib via the pictures – and if you thought you understood the extent to the crimes – you’d be wrong. This Guardian article, quoting Washington Post relays the testimony of a detainee witness to juvenile rape.

Detainee, Kasim Hilas, describes the rape of an Iraqi boy by a man in uniform, whose name has been blacked out of the statement, but who appears to be a translator working for the army.

“I saw [name blacked out] fucking a kid, his age would be about 15-18 years. The kid was hurting very bad and they covered all the doors with sheets. Then when I heard the screaming I climbed the door because on top it wasn’t covered and I saw [blacked out], who was wearing the military uniform putting his dick in the little kid’s ass,” Mr Hilas told military investigators. “I couldn’t see the face of the kid because his face wasn’t in front of the door. And the female soldier was taking pictures.”

It is not clear from the testimony whether the rapist described by Mr Hilas was working for a private contractor or was a US soldier. A private contractor was arrested after the Taguba investigation was completed, but was freed when it was discovered the army had no jurisdiction over him under military or Iraqi law.


Detainee on Box Stencil. By Steve Reed. Source:

Detainee on Box Stencil. By Steve Reed. Source:

Author’s Note: I am taking my lead from Michael Tomasky for this blog post tying Obama’s call for a block on the release of images to the worst case scenario (sexual torture). Bear in mind that the buzz has been over 44 images – why, I don’t know – but over 2,000 were/are set to be released on May 28th. Also bear in mind that the images are said to be predominantly from facilities other than Abu Ghraib. There are a lot of unknowns in this matter. Nevertheless, I am sure of two things: 1) there is more visual evidence of abuse in existence and 2) Obama is obstructing the release of the latest evidence. Time will tell how these two variables cross or diverge.

First image by photographer Christopher V. Smith whose work can be found on his Flickr profile.

Second image by Steve Reed, whose work is on his Flickr profile and blog Shadows & Light.


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