US military tried to censor coverage of Saddam hearing

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

03 July 2004

A team of US military officers acted as censors over all coverage of the hearings of Saddam Hussein and his henchmen on Thursday, destroying videotape of Saddam in chains and deleting the entire recorded legal submissions of 11 senior members of his former regime.

A US network cameraman who demanded the return of his tapes, which contained audios of the hearings, said he was told by a US officer: "No. They belong to us now. And anyway, we don't trust you guys."

According to American journalists present at the 30-minute hearing of Saddam and 11 former ministers at Baghdad airport, an American admiral in civilian clothes told camera crews that the judge had demanded that there should be no sound recording of the initial hearing. He ordered crews to unplug their sound wires. Several of the six crews present pretended to obey the instruction. "We learnt later," one of them said, "that the judge didn't order us to turn off our sound. The Americans lied - it was they who wanted no sound. The judge wanted sound and pictures."

Initially, crews were told that a US Department of Defence camera crew would provide the sound for their silent tapes. But when CNN and CBS crews went to the former occupation authority headquarters - now the US embassy - they found that three US officers ordered the censorship of tape which showed Saddam being led into the courtroom with a chain round his waist which was connected to handcuffs round his wrists. The Americans gave no reason for this censorship.

"They were rude and they didn't care," another American television crew member said. "They were running the show. The Americans decided what the world could and could not see of this trial - and it was meant to be an Iraqi trial. There was a British official in the courtroom whom we were not allowed to take pictures of. The other men were US troops who had been ordered to wear ordinary clothes so that they were 'civilians' in the court."

Three US officers viewed the tapes taken by two CNN cameras, 'Al-Djezaira' (a local, American-funded Iraqi channel), and the US government. "Fortunately, they were lazy and they didn't check all the tapes properly so we got our 'audio' through in the satellite to London," one of the crew members told The Independent yesterday. "I had pretended to unplug the sound from the camera but the man who claimed he was a US admiral didn't understand cameras and we were able to record sound. The American censors at the embassy were inattentive - that's how we got the sound out."

The only thing the Americans managed to censor from most of the tapes was Saddam's comment that "this is theatre - Bush is the real criminal."

Television stations throughout the world were astonished yesterday when the first tapes of Saddam's trial arrived without sound and have still not been informed that the Americans censored the material. "What can we do when an American official tells us the judge doesn't want sound - and then we find out that they lied and the judge does want the sound?" an American camera operator asked.

Video showed the face - and audiotape revealed the voice - of Judge Raid Juhi, whose name was widely reported in the Arab press yesterday. According to the camera crews, Judge Juhi wanted the world to hear Saddam's voice. Nevertheless the Americans erased the entire audiotape of the hearings of the 11 former Saddam ministers, including that of Tariq Aziz, the former deputy prime minister, and "Chemical" Ali, Saddam's cousin accused of gassing the Kurds at Halabja. The US Department of Defence tape of their hearings has been taken by the US authorities so there is now no technical record of the words of these 11 men, save for the notebooks of "pool" reporters - four Americans and two Iraqis - who were present.

Judge Juhi said not long ago that "I have no secrets - a judge must not be ashamed of the decisions he takes."

The Americans apparently think differently.