On March 11, the New York Times printed the gripping story of Ali Shalal Qaissi, the Iraqi in the most famous photo from Abu Ghraib, depicted below:
The story begins:
Almost two years later, Ali Shalal Qaissi’s wounds are still raw.
There is the mangled hand, an old injury that became infected by the shackles chafing his skin. There is the slight limp, made worse by days tied in uncomfortable positions. And most of all, there are the nightmares of his nearly six-month ordeal at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 and 2004.
The story continues in lurid detail, a searing indictment of the sadistic cruelty of the American armed forces. And Qaissi is described, sympathetically, as a man on a mission: he forgives his American torturers, but wants to prevent similar “atrocities” from occurring in the future. The Times article is titled “Symbol of Abu Ghraib Seeks to Spare Others His Nightmare.” Indeed, Qaissi has made something of a career out of being the man in the famous photo, including, rather weirdly, distributing this business card:
It was indeed a gripping story. And, needless to say, one that suited the Times’ political agenda. Just one problem, though: it wasn’t true. Qaissi is a hoax. This morning’s Times includes the following correction:
A front-page article last Saturday profiled Ali Shalal Qaissi, identifying him as the hooded man forced to stand on a box, attached to wires, in a photograph from the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal of 2003 and 2004. He was shown holding such a photograph. As an article on Page A1 today makes clear, Mr. Qaissi was not that man.
The Times did not adequately research Mr. Qaissi’s insistence that he was the man in the photograph. Mr. Qaissi’s account had already been broadcast and printed by other outlets, including PBS and Vanity Fair, without challenge. Lawyers for former prisoners at Abu Ghraib vouched for him. Human rights workers seemed to support his account. The Pentagon, asked for verification, declined to confirm or deny it.
Despite the previous reports, The Times should have been more persistent in seeking comment from the military. A more thorough examination of previous articles in The Times and other newspapers would have shown that in 2004 military investigators named another man as the one on the box, raising suspicions about Mr. Qaissi’s claim.
The Times also overstated the conviction with which representatives of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International expressed their view of whether Mr. Qaissi was the man in the photograph. While they said he could well be that man, they did not say they believed he was.
As the old newsman’s adage goes, some stories are just too good to check. Besides, there was someone in the photograph. So I suppose the Times could say its story was fake, but accurate.