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Potent mix of candid camera and computer

Washington, May 9: The humbling last week of the most powerful nation on earth, the richest country in history and the world’s only remaining superpower was brought about not by alert politicians or a watchdog media, but by technology in the internet age.

In challenging America’s moral superiority and its founding principles last week, the digital camera and the internet were to an aghast world what passenger planes were to Osama bin Laden in destroying the invincibility of the US, taken for granted until September 11, 2001.

Thousands of lurid images of humiliated Iraqi prisoners are now on the internet. For several weeks before some of these images were aired by CBS Television on April 28, they have been moving from computer to computer, most of them sent to friends back home in the US by soldiers in Iraq.

Many of these ‘friends’ are now said to be trading in these pictures. Some are said to be negotiating with TV channels which want to air more of these.

It prompted US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld to say at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on Friday that “there are many more photographs, and indeed some videos. Congress and the American people and the rest of the world need to know this. In addition, the photos give these incidents a vividness, indeed a horror, in the eyes of the world.”

It is also a reflection of the new power of the digital camera and the internet that the profusion of images from Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison made it impossible for Rumsfeld to have access to a single, reliable computer disk that would give him a complete picture of what went on the prison.

In earlier days, he would only have to read a “Top Secret” file to get the complete picture. Rumsfeld warily admitted to the Senate committee that for “days and days and days”, he has been trying to get a CD copy of the photographs and video from Abu Ghraib which would give him a comprehensive picture. He could not. The Washington Post wrote yesterday: “This image of a powerless secretary unable to summon up a cheap piece of plastic in the face of a “catastrophe,” as Rumsfeld described the prison scandal, was a long way from the Rumsfeld of a year ago.

“Back then, during the US military’s lightning drive on Baghdad, the civilian architect of two wars in two years described a computerised force in which data leapt from soldier to satellite to smart bomb, in which unimaginable firepower was just a few keystrokes away. Rumsfeld was a sort of Achilles for the information age. President Bush nicknamed him “Rumstud”. Like Achilles, he had a vulnerable heel.”

At a time of diminishing freedom of the press in the US, the digital camera and the internet will, doubtless, stem the erosion of the role of the fourth estate.

At Friday’s hearing, Senator Mark Dayton asked about an agreement made between the Pentagon and CBS Television to delay telecasting pictures from Abu Ghraib: “Is that standard procedure for the military command of this country to try to suppress a news report at the highest level'”

While General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fumbled for an answer, Rumsfeld admitted to that “throughout the history of this country, there have been instances where military situations have existed that led government to talk to members of the media and make an editorial request of them that they delay for some period disclosing some piece of information. It is not suppression of the news.”

Recently, CBS Television had even refused to air an advertisement critical of the US decision to go to war in Iraq. If it were not for the power of the digital camera and the internet over it may not have aired the Abu Ghraib photos either.

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