Rupert Murdoch’s Saddam Hussein Photo Scandal Heats Up

During a parliamentary debate about press reform today, a Labour M.P. added to the allegations that a News Corp. tabloid paid an American official for secret pictures of the former Iraqi dictator in U.S. custody.

Pool Photo by Erik de Castro

In an explosive intervention during a British House of Commons debate about the Leveson proposals for press reform, the campaigning Labour M.P., Chris Bryant, added more details of the allegations first broached by The Daily Beast two weeks ago that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. paid U.S. service personnel for photos of Saddam Hussein in his underpants while the former Iraqi dictator was being held in American custody in the mid-2000s. Bryant suggested there were “worrying developments” that News Corp. was no longer cooperating with police inquiries. “I urge the [News Corp. Management and Standards Committee] to provide all the emails from Rupert and James Murdoch to News International staff as a matter of urgency … in particular to the photo of Saddam. Otherwise, people will conclude in this country that News International is still refusing to cooperate with the police.”

News Corp. declined to comment on the allegations, but in July, the deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sue Akers, testified to the Leveson Inquiry that News Corp.’s Management and Standards Committee had been cooperating with police since a brief pause in May.

Bryant’s allegations cover the weeks leading up to May 20, 2005, when two Murdoch-owned tabloids, The Sun and the New York Post, ran front-page pictures of a scantily clad Hussein. On the inside pages, the papers included more photos of the former Iraqi leader in U.S. captivity. According to Fox News, the Multinational Forces spokeswoman in Baghdad said the images could have been taken between January and April 2004.

At the time The Sun’s then-managing editor, Graham Dudman, admitted that his newspaper paid “a small sum” for the photos. Dudman would not elaborate “except to say it was more than £500, which is about $900.” Scotland Yard detectives arrested Dudman in January of this year on suspicion of making corrupt payments involving British officials. He has yet to be charged with any criminal offense in the U.K. The allegation that News Corp. might have paid off a U.S. official was covered extensively in the British press.

Although a spokeswoman for the corporation called The Daily Beast story a “lame attempt to regurgitate old news,” the Hussein photos were published in many outlets and The Sun was reported to be demanding $40,000 for republication. The Telegraph alleged that the go-between sent to verify and negotiate a purchase of the pictures was a photographer at The Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily tabloid.

A spokesman for News Corp. told The Telegraph that the issue was widely reported on at the time, adding, “We didn’t believe then, and certainly don’t believe now, that it was wrong to acquire and publish newsworthy photographs of a notorious war criminal.”

Claiming that he had the information from “two News International insiders” Bryant alleged that a “substantial sum” was paid to the U.S. official on American soil and “a much larger sum” to the same source in the Britain.

Given the amount of the transaction, Bryant told Parliament: “It’s impossible to see how both editors of both The Sun and New York Post were not aware of the criminality.” Bryant also alleged that a laptop with data about the photo was destroyed, and called upon Rupert Murdoch to cooperate with police inquiries on the matter.

Sources close to the story told The Daily Beast that a British bank account was allegedly set up in the name of the U.S. official, but using the home address of a staff member at The Sun. The figure deposited into this account is alleged to have been in excess of a $100,000. It is also alleged a senior editor at The Sun cleared publication of the Saddam photos in advance with both British and U.S. intelligence services, apparently without the White House’s consent.

At the time, President George W. Bush was reported to be upset about the leak in the context of the Abu Ghraib revelations and ongoing Iraqi insurgency. “There will be a thorough investigation into this instance,” deputy White House spokesman Trent Duffy told The New York Times. “[The president] wants to get to the bottom of it immediately.”

Most the evidence of allegedly corrupt payments by tabloids to British officials, which prompted more than 50 arrests in Scotland Yard’s Operation Elveden, came from a database of some 350 million News International emails held by the Management and Standards Committee, as part of News Corp.’s compliance with the Department of Justice investigation of possible offenses under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

According the Mike Koehler, a law professor at Southern Illinois University and author of the website FCPA Professor, the payments for the Hussein photos would definitely attract the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, already involved in checking News Corp.’s payments systems and audit trails. In the U.K, because of laws protecting journalists’ sources, this is managed by independent lawyers, but Koehler is “not aware of any formal prohibition on the SEC’s ability (or the DOJ’s) to gather evidence relevant to an investigation.” However, American investigators will most likely still expect News Corp. cooperation. “The DOJ or SEC will rely on the company’s lawyers providing it relevant information and documents,” Koehler told The Daily Beast.

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The Sun’s editor in 2005, Rebekah Brooks, appeared to be oblivious to the illegality of paying public officials for stories when she appeared before a House of Commons Select committee a couple of years prior.

However, in his verbal evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, Rupert Murdoch, chair, CEO, and head of corporate governance for News Corp., told Lord Justice Leveson under oath in May, “I believe that paying police officers for information is wrong.”

Neither representatives from the FBI nor News Corp. responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment on the fresh revelations at the time of publication.