Photos obtained by the Los Angeles Times that appear to show U.S. Army paratroopers posing with the remains of suicide bombers in Afghanistan "undermine the daily sacrifices of thousands of ISAF troops who continue to serve honorably in Afghanistan," the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan says in a statement released this morning.
Gen. John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, also says "this behavior and these images are entirely inconsistent with the values of ISAF and all service members of the 50 ISAF countries serving in Afghanistan." It is "being thoroughly investigated by U.S. national authorities. ... As part of this process, we will determine responsibility and accountability of those involved."
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, and a Pentagon spokesman have also condemned the soldiers' actions. NPR's Tom Bowman tells us that George Little, the Pentagon's press secretary, has emailed reporters to say that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "strongly rejects the conduct depicted in these two-year old photographs. ... Anyone found responsible for this inhuman conduct will be held accountable in accordance with our military justice system."
The Times didn't post its story and any of the photos on its website until just within the last few minutes. But prior to that you could see the first section of the story on the Newseum's "Today's Front Pages" webpage.
The Times identifies the soldiers as being members of the 82nd Airborne Division and reports that they posed for such photos at least twice. In once incident, the Times writes, "two soldiers posed holding a dead man's hand with the middle finger raised. ... Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading 'Zombie Hunter' next to other remains and took a picture."
The Times says the U.S. Army launched an investigation after the newspaper "showed officials copies of the photos, which recently were given to the paper by a soldier from the division." The incidents reportedly happened in 2010.
In Little's email, he adds that Panetta:
"Is also disappointed that despite our request not to publish these photographs, the Los Angeles Times went ahead. The danger is that this material could be used by the enemy to incite violence against U.S. and Afghan service members in Afghanistan. U.S. forces in the country are taking security measures to guard against it."
The newspaper writes that:
"Times Editor Davan Maharaj said, 'After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.' "
News of the photos follows the report in January of a video showing four U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters, and the anger in Afghanistan during February and March after it was learned that U.S. military had mistakenly burned a Quran. The Quran burning led to protests and apparently sparked some deadly attacks on U.S. military personnel.
It also follows the deaths of 17 Afghan civilians who were allegedly gunned down by a U.S. Army sergeant.
Update at 2:25 p.m. ET. Comment From White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
Aboard Air Force One today, the White House spokesman told reporters:
"I would simply echo the comments from the Pentagon that the conduct depicted in those photographs is reprehensible. It does not in any way represent the standards, the high standards of the U.S. military. And the President certainly shares in the Defense Secretary's opinion that this needs to be investigated, and it will be investigated, and that those responsible will be held accountable.
"Having said that, we're also very disappointed that — or at least I will echo what the Defense Department said about the decision made to publish these photographs two years after the incident. But that's another story."
Update at 12:55 p.m. ET. More From Panetta:
A moment ago in Brussels, where he is attending a NATO conference with other officials, Panetta repeated that he strongly condemns "what we see in those photos. ... The behavior that was depicted in those photos absolutely violates our regulations and more importantly, our core values."
Panetta said the incidents are being investigated and that "wherever those facts lead," those responsible will be held accountable if they violated rules or regulations.
The defense secretary added that "this is war ... and I know that war is ugly and it is violent. And I know that young people sometimes [are] caught up in the moment [and] make some very foolish decisions." But, he added, "I'm not excusing that."
He also repeated that he wishes the Times had not published the images because "those kinds of photos [have been] used by the enemy to incite violence and lives have been lost due to their publication."
His words, said Panetta, are an "apology on the behalf of the department of defense."