Photographs Don’t Lie (But People With Photographs Do)

Robert Parry has recently suggested that there has been a behind the scenes conversation between Putin and Obama. The parameters of how much each is willing to give and take may have been revealed by Putin’s surprising actions in the past few days. Putin made a visit to Crimea and called its rejoining Russia a “historical truth.” But he also ordered Russia’s troops to pull back from the Ukrainian border and urged the eastern Ukrainian protestors to delay their referendums. There has since been considerable debate over whether Russian troops have actually been pulled off the Ukraine border. But the real debate, perhaps, should be about how many Russian troops were actually there to pull.

The massive movement of 40,000 Russian troops to the Ukrainian border has been repeatedly proffered by government and media as evidence of Russia as a destabilizing force in Ukraine, of Russian involvement in the anti-Kiev protests and of Russian aggression. As evidence of the Russian troop buildup, satellite photographs taken by commercial satellites between March 22 and April 2 have been offered. These photographs of combat ready forces have been used to justify both the placing of blame on Russia for the worsening situation in Ukraine and the buildup of NATO troops in eastern European nations, including former Soviet allies.

But the Russians have denied the reliability of the photographs and accused the Americans of perjury. The Russian military says that NATO’s satellite photographs are actually from August of last year. And the satellite imagery, they say, captured Russian forces conducting military exercises near the Ukrainian border. And far from being threatening to Ukraine, Ukrainian troops took part in the exercises.

Are the Russians telling the truth? It’s hard to know. But they are not the only witness testifying against NATO’s evidence. An NBC crew inspected the Russian-Ukrainian border. After travelling 1,000 miles, they saw a pair of military helicopters flying within the perimeter of their base, regular military bases with no military activity and no sign of a military buildup.

If Russia is telling the truth and if NBC is right, it would not be the first time the U.S. has been suspected of treachery in using satellite imagery of troop buildups to justify aggression.

Part of the case for war against Iraq a quarter century ago was American claims that Iraqi troops were massing along the Saudi Arabian border and threatening to spread their invasion beyond Kuwait and into Saudi Arabia. On September 11, 1990, President Bush told a joint session of congress that “120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia.” Entered as evidence by the Pentagon then too were top-secret satellite images that showed a quarter of a million Iraqi troops and 1,500 Iraqi tanks massing near the Saudi Arabian border.

But two Soviet satellite images had been taken at the same time as the alleged Pentagon pictures. And there was a discrepancy. The Soviet satellite imagery showed no Iraqi troops near the Saudi border. When the Defense Department was asked to provide evidence to delegitimize the Soviet evidence, it refused to do so.

Two experts, including a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who specialized in desert warfare, analyzed the Soviet pictures. They saw almost no sign of Iraqi troops. The other analyst was Peter Zimmerman, formerly with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and a satellite imagery expert at George Washington University. According to Zimmerman, “The Pentagon kept saying, the Iraqi troops were there, but we do not see anything to indicate an Iraqi force in Kuwait of even 20% the size the administration claimed.” The numbers weren’t there to justify the evidence of the Pentagon pictures. With regard to the Saudi border, Zimmerman reported that “. . . we do not see congregation of tanks, we do not see troop concentrations . . . there is no infrastructure to support large numbers of people.” He concluded that “all of us agreed that we couldn’t see anything in the way of military activity in the pictures.”

So the satellite imagery of the Russian-Ukrainian border is not the first time America has been accused of falsely using photos as evidence of troop build ups along a border. It is also not the first time America has been accused of falsely using photos to argue for intervention in Russia’s neighbourhood.

One of the turning points in the argument for NATO intervention in Bosnia was the defining photographs of emaciated men imprisoned in barbed wire. The photographs were instantly compared to Nazi death camps and used as evidence of Serbian war crimes.

The photos were true, but the interpretation offered of them was not. The location was not a concentration camp, but a refuge center, and the barbed wire was not surrounding the thin refugees, but the cameramen and journalists. This case of falsifying photos is fully discussed in Diana Johnstone’s Fool’s Crusade.

The satellite photos of the Ukrainian border are not even the only photos used falsely in Ukraine. In April, the New York Times published photographs purporting to show proof that Russian special forces were operating inside the Ukraine and were behind the uprisings in the east.

But they did not. One important picture of soldiers in Russia was said to be a photo of the same armed special forces troops later photographed in Ukraine. But Robert Parry has reported that the photographer who took the picture says the first picture was not taken in Russia but in the Ukrainian town of Slovyansk, forcing State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki to retract the American testimony: “. . . the assertion that the photograph in the American briefing materials had been taken in Russia was incorrect.” The photo was true. But the use of the photo was false. And the revelation of the perjury collapsed the case that Russian troops were operating in Ukraine.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the worth of the words depends on who’s telling the story. There is a contemporary history of the misuse of photographs by the United States to justify war. Photographs do not lie. But the people with the photographs might be.

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