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Pentagon quietly hid 130,000+ Afghan war photos, videos from public view

U.S and Afghan forces patrol in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Jan. 1, 2014. (SSG Bertha A. Flores/U.S. Army)
November 02, 2021

Beginning in August, the U.S. Department of Defense quietly began taking down more than 130,000 photos and videos taken during the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan. During a Monday press briefing, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby confirmed the removal of the images and said the DoD chose to take what he called a temporary measure to remove images that could be used to identify vulnerable Afghans who worked with the U.S.

Kirby said that starting in August and continuing into September, the DoD reviewed and unpublished 120,000 photos and 17,000 videos shared on publicly-accessible repositories for military photos and press releases, including the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service (DVIDS). The mass removal of photos and videos came as the last U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan and the Taliban seized near-total control of the country.

Task & Purpose was the first to report about the mass removal of U.S. military images taken during the 20-year military mission in Afghanistan. In response to a question from Task & Purpose reporter Jeff Schogol, Kirby said, “We did not delete [the images], but we took off publicly-accessible platforms and archived for future re-publication at a later date, we removed 1000s of still imagery and videos that would show the faces or any other identifiable information about many of the Afghans that we have worked for, and we’ve supported and who have supported us over the last 20 years.”

“It was a mammoth undertaking, and it took us a long time, almost two months,” Kirby added. “And the reason why I didn’t announce it was because we were in the middle of it. And it wouldn’t make much sense to tell the world that we were archiving these images before we were done archiving them, and because it is still an ongoing effort, frankly, this is not the kind of thing that I wanted to be able or have to talk about, because we are still trying to get many of these Afghans out of the country.”

According to Task & Purpose, about 86,000 still images and 46,000 videos remain viewable through the DVIDS website.

Kirby said the decision to temporarily take down all the images was done out of an abundance of caution and “out of respect for the obligation that we have to these individuals and to their families.”

The Pentagon spokesman said he delegated the responsibility for removing images to the leadership of Defense Media Activity with the guidance that, “I want any imagery that could be used to identify individuals and or family members over the last 20 years of war.”

The decision to remove the images containing potentially identifiable information came as the Taliban seized near-total control of Afghanistan and reportedly began targeting Afghans who worked alongside the U.S. and NATO allies over the past two decades.

Kirby said the image removal decision was not the result of any specific threats, but said, “We were concerned that they were going to seek out people who helped us over time, or relatives and families. And I think those concerns were valid, and we make no apology whatsoever for making this decision.”

Kirby did not provide an estimate of when the images may reappear on public-facing platforms, but said, “At the right time, when it’s appropriate, we will absolutely re-publish those images. They haven’t gone anywhere. They’re archived, they’re safe and sound, and we’ll put them back in a public domain when we think it’s the right time to do that.”