Did Donald Rumsfeld ban camera phones for soldiers in Iraq? The story has appeared on the wires, and says he did. But while there are doubts about whether the story is true, there should be bigger doubts about whether it is even possible. The abiding image of censorship of letters from the Great War of 1914-1918 is of petty bureaucrats cutting holes in innocent missives sent from the front line. One assumes that something similar happens to troops today. It seems, one might be wrong in that assumption.
As Peter Rojas points out in Engadget, it was not actually a mainstream news source which first reported Rumsfeld as saying: "To protect the Iraqi prisoners from any future abuses; any digital cameras, camcorders, or cell phones with cameras are strictly prohibited anywhere in any military compound in Iraq." That statement was actually a satirical story from The Daily Farce.
Now, a series of other reports and comments have followed, suggesting that reality may have imitated comedy. Over the weekend, several news items appeared, which seem to quote Rumsfeld, but actually use the phrase from The Daily Farce word for word. The report on iAfrica quoted Australian newspaper The Business - as did News.com in Australia, and The Washington Times.
Rojas, a more sceptical reporter than many, believes it's possible some reporters have been fooled into picking up the Farce story as news. But here's the thing: it seems pretty likely that Rumsfeld will be pushed into making the satire come true - or at least, into trying.
Unlikely as it may seem, in a world where businesses and gyms and other civil organisations are actively imposing blanket bans on all cameras, the armed forces of America haven't done this.
In a thoughtful piece for the Kansas City Star Carol Rosenberg quotes soldiers in Iraq as saying that they are taking digital images. Further - they're shooting digital video, too. And no, there's no censorship.
Rosenberg writes: "An American general's bodyguard carries his camera in his ammunition vest. An Army medic tucks his camera in his first-aid bag. Soldiers protecting convoys bring cameras along inside their Humvees. From prison camps to the front lines, pocket cameras, many capable of whizzing uncensored digital images home, are nearly as standard among soldiers' gear as rifles and dog tags."
The soldiers, she says, assume there's no security problem, and that the emails they are sending home are monitored, anyway. Wrong: "No official rules have been released during the invasion of Iraq governing the use of cameras or restricting what soldiers can photograph. No one reviews the photos before they are transmitted across the Internet."
If corporate banks can ban digital photography on their premises, logically, the army should have no problem dealing with the problem - by a simple blanket ban.
Not everybody thinks it will work, however. Rosenberg quote several sources: "No one anticipates any rules soon, beyond the admonition that mishandling classified information - even by accident in an otherwise innocent photo - is a crime," said a senior military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "You can't make all the cell phones go away. You can't make all the digital cameras go away. The genie's out of the bottle," the officer said.
Official sources can deal with some picture leaks easily enough by denouncing them as forgery. But if Rosenberg is right, there are far too many genuine pictures to filter, and no way of knowing which of them are dangerous.
The "Business" story looks like a boozle. But good money could be spent betting that if Rumsfeld has not yet banned camera phones and cameras from kit bags, he probably will, even if this isn't announced as a measure "to protect Iraqi prisoners". Whether it will succeed in stopping soldiers from taking pictures, is another question entirely.
Always remember: most American corporations have very, very strict regulations about sexual dalliances between employees. And yet, despite these injunctions, the proportion of marriages in America where the couple first met as "colleagues at work" is actually higher than in other parts of the world where this would be seen as an unacceptable interference in personal behaviour.
Regulations are easy to write down. Enforcing them... ah, that's another matter...