OBAMA MOVES TO BAR RELEASE OF DETAINEE ABUSE PHOTOS
By Jeff Zeleny and Thom Shanker
New York Times
May 13, 2009
WASHINGTON -- President Obama said Wednesday that he would fight to prevent the release of photographs documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by United States military personnel, reversing his position on the issue after commanders warned that the images could set off a deadly backlash against American troops.
The administration said last month that it would not oppose the release of the pictures, but Mr. Obama changed his mind after seeing the photographs and getting warnings from top Pentagon officials that the images, taken from the early years of the wars, would “further inflame anti-American opinion” and endanger troops in two war zones.
The decision in effect tossed aside an agreement the government had reached with the American Civil Liberties Union, which had fought to release photographs of incidents at Abu Ghraib and a half-dozen other prisons. The Justice Department informed the United States District Court in New York, which had backed the A.C.L.U.’s request, that it would appeal the ruling, citing “further reflection at the highest levels of government.”
To explain his position, which was sharply criticized by the A.C.L.U., Mr. Obama spoke at the White House before flying to Arizona to deliver a commencement address. He suggested that the new mission in Iraq and Afghanistan could be imperiled by an old fight.
“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” Mr. Obama told reporters on the South Lawn. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he had changed his mind about releasing the photographs, and suggested the president did as well, because of the strong views of the top commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. Ray Odierno and Gen. David D. McKiernan, who is being replaced.
In Iraq, American combat forces are withdrawing from urban areas and reducing their numbers nationwide. In Afghanistan, more than 20,000 new troops are flowing in to combat an insurgency that has grown in potency ahead of national elections in August.
The A.C.L.U. had prevailed in the case at the federal trial court level and before an appeals court panel. The photographs were set to be released on May 28 under an agreement with the Pentagon and the White House. But as that date approached, military officials expressed growing unease to Mr. Gates, who then discussed the issue with the president.
Officials who have seen the photos describe them as falling into two categories: Abu Ghraib-style personal snapshots taken by soldiers; and photos taken by military criminal investigators documenting allegations of abuse, including autopsy photos of prisoners who died in custody.
Many of the photos may recall those taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which showed prisoners naked or in degrading positions, sometimes with Americans posing smugly nearby, and caused an uproar in the Arab world and elsewhere when they came to light in 2004.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the A.C.L.U., said the decision to fight the release of the photos was a mistake. He said officials had described them as “worse than Abu Ghraib” and said their volume, more than 2,000 images, showed that “it is no longer tenable to blame abuse on a few bad apples. These were policies set at the highest level.”
One Pentagon official involved in the discussion said the photos showed detainees in humiliating positions, but said they were not as provocative as pictures of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. The official said that the photos showed detainee nudity, and that some included images of detainees shackled for transfer. Other photographs showed American military personnel members with weapons drawn, pointing at detainees in what another official said had the appearance of “a war trophy.”
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe photographs that are the subject of continuing litigation.
During the court case, Pentagon officials had fought the release of the photographs, connected with investigations between 2003 and 2006, on the grounds that their release could harm American military personnel overseas and that the privacy of detainees would be violated. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in upholding a lower court ruling, said the public interest involved in release of the pictures outweighed a vague, speculative fear of danger to the American military or violation of the detainees’ privacy.
Last month, the administration said it had agreed to release the images, in part because it did not believe it could persuade the Supreme Court to review the case. But Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Wednesday that the president did not believe that the government had made the strongest possible case to the court about the ramifications of releasing the photographs, particularly on “what the release of these would do to our national security.”
The release of these detainee photographs, Pentagon and military officials said, could provoke outrage and, in particular, be used by violent extremists to stoke attacks and recruit suicide bombers. Military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan were said to be particular targets of such attacks, but officials said civilians also might be extremists’ targets.
Several left-leaning groups, which had been fierce critics of the Bush administration, said they were stunned by the decision. Human Rights Watch called it a blow to transparency and accountability. And Mr. Romero, the executive director of the A.C.L.U., suggested that the Obama administration was “covering up not only for the Bush White House, but for itself.”
Asked whether release of the photos might not help Al Qaeda or provoke violence in the Muslim world, Mr. Romero said, “The greatest recruitment tool for Al Qaeda and violent jihadis has been the use of torture.”
In his remarks at the White House, Mr. Obama spoke out forcefully against torture and said he had impressed upon military commanders “that the abuse of detainees in our custody is prohibited and will not be tolerated.” But as commander in chief, he said, the well-being of American forces carrying out his strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq outweighed the call to release the images.
“Moreover,” he said, “I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.”
--Elisabeth Bumiller and Scott Shane contributed reporting.
OBAMA'S LATEST EFFORT TO CONCEAL EVIDENCE OF BUSH ERA CRIMES
By Glenn Greenwald
** The President's rationale for changing his mind is as incoherent as it is reminiscent of the Bush/Cheney mindset. **
May 13, 2009
http://www.salon.com/opinion/greenwald/2009/05/13/photos/print.html (see original for additional links)
(updated below - Update II)
It's difficult to react much to Obama's complete reversal today of his own prior decision to release photographs depicting extreme detainee abuse by the United States. He's left no doubt that this is what he does: ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has taken one extreme step after the next to keep concealed both the details and the evidence of Bush's crimes, including rendition, torture and warrantless eavesdropping. The ACLU's Amrit Singh -- who litigated the thus-far-successful FOIA lawsuit to compel disclosure of these photographs -- is exactly right: "The reversal is another indication of a continuance of the Bush administration policies under the Obama administration. President Obama's promise of accountability is meaningless, this is inconsistent with his promise of transparency, it violates the government's commitment to the court. People need to examine these abusive photographs, but also the government officials need to be held accountable."
Andrew Sullivan, one of Obama's earliest and most enthusiastic supporters, wrote of today's photograph-concealment decision and yesterday's story of Obama's pressuring Britain to conceal evidence of Binyam Mohamed's torture: "Slowly but surely, Obama is owning the cover-up of his predecessors' war crimes. But covering up war crimes, refusing to prosecute them, promoting those associated with them, and suppressing evidence of them are themselves violations of Geneva and the U.N. Convention. So Cheney begins to successfully coopt his successor. . . From extending and deepening the war in Afghanistan, to suppressing evidence of rampant and widespread abuse and torture of prisoners under Bush, to thuggishly threatening the British with intelligence cut-off if they reveal the brutal torture inflicted on Binyam Mohamed, Obama now has new cheer-leaders: Bill Kristol, Michael Goldfarb, and Max Boot. . . . Those of us who held out hope that the Obama administration would not be actively covering up the brutal torture of a Gitmo prisoner who was subject to abuse in several countries must now concede the obvious. They're covering it up -- in such a crude and obvious fashion that it is actually a crime in Britain."
John Aravosis said Obama's logic was "a bit Bushian." Steve Hynd observes that "Obama Trades Our Principles For Cheneyism." TPM decalres: "Obama falls back on Bushisms." Dan Froomkin writes: "Obama Joins the Cover-Up." I'll just note a few points for now about Obama's efforts to keep these photographs concealed:
(1) Think about what Obama's rationale would justify. Obama's claim -- that release of the photographs "would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger" -- means we should conceal or even outright lie about all the bad things we do that might reflect poorly on us. For instance, if an Obama bombing raid slaughters civilians in Afghanistan (as has happened several times already), then, by this reasoning, we ought to lie about what happened and conceal the evidence depicting what was done -- as the Bush administration did -- because release of such evidence would "would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger." Indeed, evidence of our killing civilians in Afghanistan inflames anti-American sentiment far more than these photographs would. Isn't it better to hide the evidence showing the bad things we do?
Apparently, the proper reaction to heinous acts by our political leaders is not to hold them accountable but, instead, to hide evidence of what they did. That's the warped mentality Obama is endorsing today, and has been endorsing since January 20.
(2) How can anyone who supports what Obama is doing here complain about the CIA's destruction of their torture videos? The torture videos, like the torture photos, would, if released, generate anti-American sentiment and make us look bad. By Obama's reasoning, didn't the CIA do exactly the right thing by destroying them?
(3) This is just another manifestation of the generalized Beltway religion that we should suppress and ignore the heinous acts our government committed and to which we acquiesced, because if we just agree to forget about all of it, then we can blissfully pretend that it never happened and avoid doing anything about it.
(4) Obama's claim that he has to hide this evidence to protect our soldiers is the sort of crass, self-serving exploitation of "The Troops" which was the rancid hallmark of Bush/Cheney rhetoric. Everyone knows what the real effect of these photographs would be: they would highlight just how brutal and criminal was our treatment of detainees in our custody, and further underscore how amoral and lawless are Obama's calls that we Look To the Future, Not the Past. Manifestly, that is why they're being suppressed.
(5) For all of you defend-Obama-at-all-cost cheerleaders who are about to descend into my comment section and other online venues to explain how Obama did the right thing because of National Security, I have this question: if you actually want to argue that concealing these photographs is the right thing to do, then you must have been criticizing Obama when, two weeks ago, he announced that he would release them. Otherwise, it's pretty clear that you don't have any actual beliefs other than: "I support what Obama does because it's Obama who does it." So for those arguing today that concealing these photographs is the right thing to do: were you criticizing Obama two weeks ago for announcing he would release these photographs?
Also, the OLC torture memos released several weeks ago surely increased anti-American sentiment. Indeed, those on the Right who objected to the release of those memos cited exactly that argument. How can anyone cheer on Obama's decision today to conceal these photographs while also cheering on his decision to release the OLC memos? Those who have any intellectual coherence would have to oppose both or support both. Those two decisions only have one fact in common: Obama made them. Thus, the only way to cheer on both decisions is to be guided by the modified Nixonian mantra: what Obama does is right because Obama does it.
Also, during the Bush years, were you -- along with Bill Kristol and National Review -- attacking the ACLU and Congressional Democrats for demanding that the Bush administration stop concealing evidence of its torture, on the ground that disclosure of such evidence would harm America's national security? Were you defending Bush then for doing what Obama is doing now?
(6) If these photographs don't shed any new light on what our Government did -- if all they do is replicate what we already know from the Abu Ghraib photographs -- then how can it possibly be the case that they will do any damage? To argue that they will harm how we are perceived is, necessarily, to acknowledge that they reveal new information that is not already widely known.
(7) We are supposed to have what is called Open Government in the United States. The actions of our government -- and the evidence documenting it -- is presumptively available to the public. Only an authoritarian would argue that evidence of government actions should be kept secret in the absence of a compelling reason to release it.
The presumption is the opposite: documents in the government's possession relating to what it does is presumptively public in the absence of compelling reasons to keep it concealed. That the documents reflect poorly on the government is not such a reason to keep them concealed. If it were, then it would always be preferable to have political leaders cover-up their crimes on the ground that disclosing them would reflect poorly on the U.S. and spur anti-American sentiment. Open government is necessary precisely because only transparency deters political leaders from doing heinous acts in the first place.
UPDATE: Here (.pdf) is the letter the DOJ sent to the court this afternoon, advising the judge that they changed their minds "at the highest levels of Government" and would not, as previously promised, release the photographs, but instead would attempt to appeal the Second Circuit's decision compelling their release to the Roberts Supreme Court.
UPDATE II: In comments, Paul Daniel Ash addresses the Obama supporters who are defending Obama's decision to keep these photographs concealed on the ground that "no good would come" from disclosure: "I'm pretty jaded, but even I'm outraged and saddened by the number of voices being raised in this comment thread supporting the decision to conceal these photos.
"'No good will come?' Would we even have had an Abu Ghraib scandal without the pictures of bloody prisoners and men cowering in front of dogs? 'No good?' Is there or is there not an active debate in this country about whether or not torture is acceptable? 'No good?' Did a United States Senator not say just today, in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight and the Courts, that torture techniques have been used for the past five centuries because 'apparently they work?'
"'No good will come?'"
Indeed, it's pretty hard to believe that the people who are arguing that "no good will come" from release of these photos either (a) lived through the impact of the Abu Ghraib photos and/or (b) are living through the "torture debate" we are now having.
Photographs convey the reality of things in a way that mere words cannot. They prevent people who want to deny what was done the ability to do so. They force citizens to face what their country did and what they are now justifying and advocating. They impede the ability of political leaders to use euphemisms to obscure the truth. They show in graphic detail what the effects are of sanctioning torture policies. They prove that this was about more than "dunking three terrorists into water." They highlight the fact that no decent person believes that this should all just be forgotten and its victims told that they have no right to have accountability. That's precisely why the photographs are being suppressed: because of how much good they would do.