Grisly photos of war dead posted on an Internet pornography site have exposed yet another unanticipated consequence of the proliferation of personal computer technology on the battlefield.
Taking what's called "trophy photos" of war dead is a practice as old as portable cameras. But digital cameras and Internet connections have made it possible for troops to blast such images around the world with the click of a mouse.
One controversial Web site shows photos of bloody body parts and mangled corpses -- photos, the site says, sent by U.S. troops in Iraq in exchange for free access to graphic pornography pictures.
One series of gruesome photos posted Tuesday showed bloody, naked, face-down male corpses from a variety of angles under the subject line, "Don't [expletive] with the U.S. Army."
"Some more insurgents sent to explain themselves to Allah," the caption read. "Killing is never a casual occurance [sic], but I would kill a thousand to save one American life. I am not responsible for the enemy casualties shown here."
Army investigators launched an initial probe into the dozens of grisly photos on the site, but the investigation stalled because most of the subjects of the photos were so badly deformed that it was impossible to determine their identity, let alone when and where the pictures were taken.
One military official said investigators are looking into whether insurgents may have posted the photos to generate outrage against U.S. forces.
However, a senior defense official acknowledged at least some of the images appeared legitimate. And an Army spokesman added that commanders in Iraq are pursuing service members whose identities could be clearly discerned from the photos.
"The military will work the matter within the chain of command in Iraq to ensure that personnel are aware of appropriate conduct and continue their sensitivity to the remains of local citizens and members of our armed forces," read a statement released at Army headquarters in the Pentagon.
Council on American-Islamic Relations Legal Director Arsalan Iftikhar sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanding he "investigate this troubling phenomenon and do whatever is necessary to bring it to an end."
How to Prosecute?
Before this issue arose, several soldiers had already been fined or demoted for posting sensitive information about U.S. military operations to their own blogs.
This summer, commanders in Iraq issued rules on what can be posted on soldier blogs. But those guidelines focused on "unit and soldier owned and maintained Websites" and targeted "operational security" rather than prurience.
Pentagon officials say posting photos of dead insurgents on the Internet already is covered by a military law that forbids "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." A defense official said such photos might also violate Geneva Convention rules on respect for the remains of those who have died as a result of hostilities."
Senior Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman added that it should be clear to all troops that military computers and networks are for official use only. Use of personal laptops and private computer networks is allowed, but soldiers are governed by military law at all times, regardless of what sort of computer system they are using.
Whitman described the posting of the images in question as "despicable practices."
"This does not represent the U.S. military," he said. "It is despicable."
The Army this morning e-mailed around a reminder to its leaders: "There are new [operational security] guidelines which have been put forth by DoD and the Army regarding Internet safety. Whether it is a family Web page or a personal blog, safety and security measures must be strictly observed. Sensitive [Department of Defense] information must not be divulged to the public at large for national security reasons."
After being blindsided by the firestorm that erupted following the release of photos depicting abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military is now more aware of the ways technology and images can get in the way of their strategic goals.
In late July, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers argued to a federal judge that release of abuse imagery from the Abu Ghraib case would spark a firestorm of protest that would result in more dead civilians and military forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East.
"Release of the photographs and videos, even in redacted form," Myers wrote in an affidavit, "will very likely lead to riots and violence across the Middle East, posing grave risk to both military forces and civilians."