The video that ended Wayne Anderson’s career as a war correspondent lasts one minute and 49 seconds. The public hasn’t been able to see it since Anderson took it off the Web back in July 2010, barely a day after he put it up.
Yet the glimpse of wounded Americans carried on stretchers into a military hospital in Afghanistan has become a test of the First Amendment on the battlefield. The Army revoked Anderson’s status as an embedded reporter with the Minnesota National Guard because it said the faces of the soldiers on his video were recognizable, a violation of the contract that Anderson signed with the military.
On a colonel’s order, Anderson was banished from a military base, leaving him to take a taxi to Kabul on his way home to northwest Wisconsin.
“I really felt violated,” Anderson said in an interview. “I couldn’t believe my own country was doing this.”
Late last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia handed Anderson a setback, rejecting his First Amendment argument and ruling that the government can ignore due process in a war zone. Still, Anderson said he will continue fighting for journalists’ right to contest these kinds of decisions.
“That’s all I ever asked, just give me a fair hearing,” he said.
Anderson’s case has become a cause célèbre among critics of the Pentagon’s effort to control coverage in war zones. Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst now in prison for the WikiLeaks document dump, mentioned Anderson’s plight in a 2014 New York Times op-ed titled, “The fog machine of war.”
Yet Anderson wasn’t scrapping for a fight with the military when he decided to cover the war. Instead, he was a 50-something retired construction company owner, with a column in a small Wisconsin newspaper, looking to tell the positive side of what the military was doing overseas.
He paid for his own body armor and helmet and went to Iraq with a Wisconsin guard unit for a month in 2007. Then, in July 2010, he embedded with the Minnesota Guard and traveled to Camp Mike Spann, near the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. As a freelance reporter, he planned to send back stories for newspapers and a radio station in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Washington.
After five days on the base, he saw a frantic scramble of soldiers and vehicles next to the hospital. He pulled his video camera out of his pocket and, with shaking hands, started recording. “Go, go, go, go, go,” someone shouts, as personnel carry three stretchers holding wounded service members, their bodies limp, from the ambulance into the hospital.
After turning off his camera, Anderson went about trying to find out what happened. Several Americans had been shot at a U.S.-Afghan military training exercise, but he heard conflicting stories about how it happened. Meanwhile, he did not publish anything for more than a week, while officers tried repeatedly to stop his reporting, he said.
Finally, on July 29, 2010, he published a story about the attack in the Washington Times, and linked it to his video. The next day, he was summoned from his tent to a meeting where officers told him of their intention to terminate his embed.
The controversy did not involve Minnesota Guard members. But Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, a spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard, said all embedded reporters know the drill: “If someone is killed or injured, our most important obligation is to the families,” he said. “It’s very important that we follow a deliberate process, so they don’t hear the bad news through the media.”
Anderson said he knew that well: “You’re allowed to document the horrors of war, all of it, except for identifying the people unless the family gives you permission.” And he disagreed that the video showed any recognizable images.
But he thinks the military was peeved at seeing bad news at a sensitive moment in the war. He learned later that the person who shot those Americans was apparently a Taliban sympathizer who had infiltrated a friendly Afghan unit.
Anderson was taken to the air base outside Kabul. There, a colonel confronted him on the tarmac with screen grabs from his video, and the paperwork of his dismissal. Hours later, he caught a flight home.
Since then, he has reinvented himself as a litigator. He filed his first lawsuit without a lawyer, although he is now represented by Jeffrey Light, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington.
These days, Anderson keeps busy beekeeping and grape-growing, and wondering when his legal odyssey will end.
“Five-and-a-half years later, and a stack of papers this high, we’re still fighting,” he said. “Can you believe that? It’s absurd.”
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.