You probably remember John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. What you might not remember is a series of photos that American soldiers took of Lindh at the time of his arrest. Writing in a May 2004 article entitled "Chain of Command" in the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh described Lindh’s arrest and the photos that surfaced:
One of the most prominent prisoners of the Afghan war was John Walker Lindh, the twenty-one-year-old Californian who was captured in December, 2001. Lindh was accused of training with Al Qaeda terrorists and conspiring to kill Americans. A few days after his arrest, according to a federal-court affidavit filed by his attorney, James Brosnahan, a group of armed American soldiers “blindfolded Mr. Lindh, and took several pictures of Mr. Lindh and themselves with Mr. Lindh. In one, the soldiers scrawled ‘shithead’ across Mr. Lindh’s blindfold and posed with him. . . . Another told Mr. Lindh that he was ‘going to hang’ for his actions and that after he was dead, the soldiers would sell the photographs and give the money to a Christian organization.” Some of the photographs later made their way to the American media. Lindh was later stripped naked, bound to a stretcher with duct tape, and placed in a windowless shipping container. Once again, the affidavit said, “military personnel photographed Mr. Lindh as he lay on the stretcher.” On July 15, 2002, Lindh agreed to plead guilty to carrying a gun while serving in the Taliban and received a twenty-year jail term. During that process, Brosnahan told me, “the Department of Defense insisted that we state that there was ‘no deliberate’ mistreatment of John.” His client agreed to do so, but,the attorney noted, “Against that, you have that photograph of a naked John on that stretcher.”We all know what happened to Lindh – he’s serving a 20-year sentence at a federal prison in Indiana. But snapping pictures of prisoners of war (except for identification photos taken at the time of detention) is against military regulations... so what happened to the soldiers who took the photographs?
Well, I’ve been browsing through the ACLU collection using the keywords photograph, photo, and picture and came across several documents that pertain to Lindh’s arrest and the infamous "shithead" photo. The short version is that the Army did conduct an AR 15-6 investigation into the photographs and into possible mistreatment of Lindh during his arrest and detention, but doesn't seem to have found evidence of criminal behavior on the part of US soldiers, and concluded that the "shithead" photograph was a “sophomoric” attempt at “barracks humor.”
I've provided links to the ACLU search page in each of the headers below. Enter the document number and you're good to go. The acronym "ODA" stands for "Operational Deployment - Alpha" and refers to a US Special Forces team.
- AR stands for “Army Regulations,” and 15-6 sets out the procedures for conducting investigations. “Informal” AR15-6 investigations are a more limited version of an official formal investigation and are conducted in the interest of expediency, when a quick inquiry is considered most efficient for gathering information. You can read more about AR 15-6 here.
- Documents DOD015549-DOD015551, dated April 22, 2002, is a memo from Major General Geoffrey Lambert appointing Col. David Buford in Fort Bragg as the Investigating Officer responsible for looking into the "shithead" photograph. Buford is directed to look into roughly 15 different questions around the photograph - when, where, and why the photograph was taken; under whose orders it was removed, deleted or destroyed; where it was distributed; what training the soldiers had regarding treatment of Prisoners of War at the time that Lindh was arrested; at what point it was released to the FBI or the Department of Justice. Buford is also told to look for evidence that a soldier may have committed a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
- Documents DOD015552 - DOD015647, which was released on or about 18 April 2002, is a 96 page collection of the sworn statements of the soldiers involved in Lindh’s detention and handling.
- Documents DOD015514-DOD015514, dated 3 February 2003, seems to be a summary of Buford’s findings. In it, he writes that, “… a momentary lapse of “mature” good judgment and propose that it was a sophomoric idea that quickly grew unsavory in its own right… this is clearly indicated by the ODA team leadership who began to expunge the photo-in-question from the archives within 24 hours of its existence... however, the age of electronic data handling or “business velocity” enabled the photo to quickly outpace local recover efforts and others outside the ODA were soon seeing the photo in question on other electronic devices” (DOD-015515).
- Documents DOD015517-DOD015548, dated 4 February 2003, is a moderately redacted, 32 page review of the Buford investigation. In this review, the “shithead” photo is described as “barracks humor” and as “sophomoric.” Later in the same document, the Deputy Staff Judge (name redacted) authoring the review writes that another member of the ODA – meaning a member of the Special Forces – exhibited a “humbling” generosity towards Lindh: he segregated Lindh in a separate room out of concern for the unpredictable actions of other detainees towards Lindh, while a US Army staff sergeant provided Lindh with a cot and a heater, while he himself “continued to sleep on a concrete floor, in a separate unheated room.”
I’ll be writing more about the phenomenon of soldiers and digital photography in an upcoming post.