San Diego, CA December 28, 2004 – LAWFUEL – Best for law news – Six Navy SEALs and two of their wives filed a lawsuit against the Associated Press and one of its reporters, for revealing their identities in personal pictures published worldwide in early December. The case was filed today in the Superior Court of San Diego, California.
The complaint alleges that Associated Press (AP) reporter Seth Hettena stumbled upon a photograph in a personal photo storage website maintained by one of the wives of the Navy SEALs that contains photographs both personal and Navy related. Hettena removed photographs from that site and published them on December 4, 2004, in a story stating that the pictures “could be” the earliest evidence of possible prisoner abuse in Iraq. The SEALs argue that the pictures actually depict special warfare operators’ standard procedures during covert operations. The Iraqis shown being captured in the photographs were leaders of anti-coalition attacks and Saddam loyalists.
“There was no need for the AP to publish the faces of the SEALs,” said James W. Huston, a partner at Morrison & Foerster who is heading the Navy SEALs legal team. “They added nothing to the value of the story. In fact, the SEALs showed more respect for the insurgents and terrorists that they were apprehending by obscuring their faces than the AP did for the Navy SEALs who were in Iraq risking their lives,” he added.
The plaintiffs, several of whom are still serving in Iraq, argue the AP knowingly published the faces and identifying information of special warfare operators conducting sensitive operations on behalf of intelligence agencies. The AP chose to publish the photographs worldwide, clearly showing their faces and identifying information and showing them in operations in Iraq where they can be identified by the enemy. In the article to which the photographs were attached, the AP quotes the Navy as saying that revealing the faces or names of these special warfare operators could put them or their families at risk. In spite of that knowledge, AP made no efforts to obscure their faces or conceal their identities.
“We believe that when the trial is held in this case, the evidence will be that there is no prisoner abuse whatsoever in those photographs,” said Morrison & Foerster’s Huston, a former Navy Flight Officer and Reserve Intelligence Officer. “But regardless of what the reporter thought the pictures showed, he had no grounds to disclose the identities of the individuals involved, especially when he had been warned by the Navy of the danger to the SEALs and their families of doing so.”
Since the photos were released, they have been published widely in the Arab Press, including Al Jazeera. Several of the photographs were broadcast as part of a television report showing them on a billboard outside of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the Navy SEALs are accused of being Nazis and photos are displayed with swastikas.
Speaking for the group, one of the SEALs said, “We are very disappointed in this reporter’s unprofessional behavior and the fact that he showed such disregard for us, our safety, and the ongoing work we are doing. We find this conduct especially appalling in light of the continuing war in Iraq and the fact that we are continuing to put ourselves at risk. This risk is now greater because of Mr. Hettena, and the increased risk was completely unnecessary and preventable.”
The Navy SEALs are requesting injunctive relief, to preclude republishing the photographs, to preclude the publication of additional unpublished photographs, and to preclude the publication of personal photos by the Navy wife whose site was invaded, such as her wedding photos.
The SEALs have asked for unspecified damages for their invasion of privacy claim and intentional infliction of emotional distress by the wives. Huston said that these sorts of claims are difficult to value, and that he would trust in the judgment of a San Diego jury to award what it considers appropriate.
The Navy goes to great lengths to protect the identities and whereabouts of its 2,400 SEALs – which stands for Navy Sea, Air, Land – many of whom have classified missions around the globe.