The saga over whether or not Iraqi police Captain Jamail Hussein exists continues to chug along, much as it has for the past five weeks.
On November 24, the Associated Press’s Baghdad bureau reported that a group of militiamen snatched six Sunni men as they left a mosque in Baghdad, poured kerosene over them “and burned them alive as Iraqi soldiers stood by.” Capt. Hussein was named in the wire service’s report as confirming the incident, and, as we have come to find out, Hussein also was a named source in more than 60 AP stories during 2006.
Soon after the report came out, the American military and the Iraqi government denied that the incident occurred and that Capt. Hussein even exists. The AP, in not quite its proudest moment, replied with an unnecessarily haughty statement that said any “attempt to question the existence of the known police officer who spoke to the AP is frankly ludicrous and hints at a certain level of desperation to dispute or suppress the facts of the incident in question.”
Turns out it wasn’t quite so ludicrous, or else we would have seen some kind of definitive proof of Capt. Hussein’s existence.
To be fair, the AP did follow up on the story after the initial criticisms surfaced, producing multiple sources in the Baghdad neighborhood where the attack supposedly took place. But even that wasn’t enough. A few days later, the New York Times’ Tom Zeller reprinted an email from Baghdad reporter Ed Wong, who said that “We reached several people who told us about the mosque attacks, but said they had heard nothing of Sunni worshippers being burned alive. Any big news event travels quickly by word of mouth through Baghdad, aided by the enormous proliferation of cell phones here … Yet, as far as I know, there was no widespread talk of the incident.”
But all that took place in late November and early December, and since then, we’ve seen some evidence pointing to the existence of Capt. Hussein, and other evidence denying that he exists at all.
In short, the whole situation is a mess.
In today’s Editor & Publisher, Joe Strupp took another look at the issue, asking the AP’s Kathleen Carroll, the news service’s executive editor, where the story stood. Carroll told Strupp that the AP is standing by its statements confirming the existence of the Iraqi police Captain.
She went on say that Hussein “is a guy we’ve talked to for years … we don’t have anything new to say about it, nothing new to add.”
Linda Wagner, the AP’s director of media relations and public affairs, blew off Strupp in a similar fashion, telling him that “it would be highly unusual for any news organization to provide sources on the demands of critics.”
She’s right that it would be unusual, but this is an unusual case — and if the AP wants it to go away, it is going to have to own up to the realities of the situation one way or another. The facts are these: The AP is sticking to its story, and did some follow-up reporting, using additional sources, to bolster its initial reporting, but refuses to take the extra step of producing some hard evidence to confirm the existence of an important (and named!) source. Clearly, whatever the AP has done thus far isn’t enough.
We see no reason for the AP to have made up a source. But there has been so much back and forth on this story over the past five weeks that it’s time the AP produced the captain, or provide documentation that he exists, or tell us why no one can find a record of his employment by the Iraqi police. Since security is a very real concern here, we’re not calling for the AP to drag someone who is already an insurgent target in front of a bank of television cameras — rather, they could provide his information to the American and Iraqi authorities, who could then clarify the situation.