BROOKE GLADSTONE: On these shores, Congress members were given a private viewing of supposedly even more gruesome photos from Abu Ghraib, and remain divided as to whether the Defense Department should release them to the public. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner doesn't think so, but even he understands that it's just a matter of time before the photos trickle out.
JOHN WARNER:No one knows how many copies have been made, and the distribution, whether it's in the United States or worldwide. So, should they get out? Yes. But it will not be at the hands of the executive branch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If only Donald Rumsfeld were as coolly resigned to the realities of media in the internet age.
DONALD RUMSFELD:People are running around with, 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, they had not even arrived in the Pentagon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The Pentagon may not have been able to head off the leaks, but that doesn't mean it didn't try. Baltimore Sun reporter Tom Bowman wrote that back in January, when an Army soldier at Abu Ghraib first showed some of the photos to an officer, investigators immediately seized computers and disks, and within 24 hours Rumsfeld had been notified of the situation.
TOM BOWMAN: I was told by one Army officer that they were very, very concerned about these photos getting out. Clearly the pictures were - are driving this whole story, and clearly the pictures, I think, are driving the investigations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This week, as if to underscore the Pentagon's failure to retrieve all the errant images, 60 Minutes II aired parts of a video recorded last year by a soldier at Camp Buca, another prison where Iraqis were allegedly abused. In it, the soldier narrates life in the camp.
WOMAN: They have usually about three a week that breaks out, and of course every time I'm working, they never do it. Cause they're scared of me. I actually got in trouble the other day because I was throwing rocks at 'em.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And then there are the photos published earlier this month in Britain's Daily Mirror, purporting to show soldiers abusing a prisoner. On Thursday, the British government declared the photos fakes and called for an apology from the paper. Friday, the editor resigned. For Peter Howe, photojournalist and former picture editor of the New York Times Magazine, such are the vagaries of documenting war in a digital age. Peter, thanks for coming on.
PETER HOWE: Oh, you're more than welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now, the Pentagon has tried, since the days the photos first came to light, to completely control all of the documentary evidence that existed of alleged abuse. Was this an impossible task right from the start?
PETER HOWE:It wouldn't have been if the pictures had been taken on film. The big difference was because they were taken on digital cameras, the ability that even the least-proficient amateur photographer has nowadays to make copies and to disperse them widely over the internet, anyone can do it - and so, given those circumstances, it's extraordinarily difficult to control the flow of that kind of information.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:This seems to be a bit of a strange twist on the Pentagon's grand embedding experiment. I mean the idea was to have reporters, documentarians, along for the ride with our soldiers to ensure that the right message was communicated back home. Here, it's the soldiers themselves that were the documentarians, and the message was very different.
PETER HOWE:That's exactly right. I also think that there is a difference inasmuch as the photographs that the photojournalists who were embedded took, were taken specifically to be shown to people - to a lot of people. The photographs that came out of the prison were intended to not be shown to people. And I think that gives the pictures a quality which to me almost sort of adds to the, I think, obscenity is not too strong a word, the obscenity of the acts. Because these are photographs which you were not supposed to have seen. But there's something about having a photograph which gives a sort of authenticity to an event which people, for some reason, believe more than the written word. The interesting thing, I think, about the British photos which I believe have now been proven to be fake was that the soldiers who offered that story to the London Daily Mirror -- for money, I might add -- the Mirror rejected the story because they didn't have any photographs to go with it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's amazing.
PETER HOWE:You know, the same thing with Abu Ghraib. The Red Cross has been documenting and offering that documentation to the government almost from the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. Those reports were completely ignored until there were pictures to back 'em up, which is actually curious in this day and age, because digital photography is manipulatable -- maybe not that much more manipulatable than photography's always been, but it's certainly easier and quicker to manipulate. So in some ways, we probably nowadays have less reason to believe photography. But in fact, actually it seems to becoming more and more important.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And as you observed in a very interesting article in Salon.com this week, this could mark the first time in history that the most iconic images from a war were taken by amateurs.
PETER HOWE:It's almost becoming a new form of journalism. It doesn't conform to the rules that a lot of us were brought up with as journalists. There is no fact-checking. We don't know whether this photograph's authentic or that photograph's authentic. But once it gets out on the internet, it does seem to carry an equal weight to that which has been fact-checked and that we know comes from a reliable journalistic source.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:There was a, a graphic example just this week of what happens when you don't really know the provenance of a photo. The Boston Globe ran pictures that were supposed to be of alleged sexual abuses of Iraqi women by U.S. soldiers, and the pictures turned out to be staged shots from a hard core porn website.
PETER HOWE:That's absolutely right. Certainly I think that one of the things that has really occurred with this technology is it has made things so much easier, so much quicker, and therefore so much more tempting --particularly if you're under the pressure of a deadline -- to be a little bit more sloppy about checking sources.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And Luc Sante wrote in the New York Times this week that "perhaps the digital camera will haunt the future of George W. Bush the way the tape recorder sealed the fate of Richard Nixon."
PETER HOWE:I think that the rules are different; that there is a new transparency, and it's not just confined to politicians or the military. It is corporate governance, and it is in almost every aspect of our lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks very much.
PETER HOWE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Photojournalist Peter Howe is author of Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Coming up, the FCC casts a chill, both on Howard Stern and the network that brought you Big Bird. And an update on remakes. This is On the Media, from NPR.