Obama orders stop to detainee photo releases

The Iraqi Ministry of Justice gave journalists an inside look at the prison formerly known as Abu Ghraib.
President Obama has ordered government lawyers to object to the planned release of additional detainee photos, according to an administration official.

The Defense Department was set to release hundreds of photographs showing alleged abuse of prisoners in detention facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Last week, the president met with his legal team and told them that he did not feel comfortable with the release of the [Defense Department] photos because he believes their release would endanger our troops, and because he believes that the national security implications of such a release have not been fully presented to the court,” the official said. “At the end of that meeting, the president directed his counsel to object to the immediate release of the photos on those grounds. … [Obama] strongly believes that the release of these photos, particularly at this time, would only serve the purpose of inflaming the theaters of war, jeopardizing U.S. forces, and making our job more difficult in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.” The release is in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. It follows President Obama’s decision to release Bush-era CIA documents showing that the U.S. used techniques like waterboarding, considered torture by the current administration. Photographs released in 2006 of detainees being abused and humiliated at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq sparked widespread outrage and led to convictions for several prison guards and the ouster of the prison’s commander.

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The Pentagon shut down the prison in the wake of the scandal, but it reopened under Iraqi control this year. The ACLU said the Pentagon had agreed to release a “substantial” number of photographs by May 28. Officials at the Pentagon have said the photographs are from more than 60 criminal investigations between 2001 and 2006 and show military personnel allegedly abusing detainees. “The disclosure of these photographs serves as a further reminder that abuse of prisoners in U.S.-administered detention centers was systemic,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU National Security Project. “Some of the abuse occurred because senior civilian and military officials created a culture of impunity in which abuse was tolerated, and some of the abuse was expressly authorized. It’s imperative that senior officials who condoned or authorized abuse now be held accountable for their actions.” ACLU attorney Amrit Singh adds that the photographs “provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib.” But Pentagon officials reject ACLU allegations that the photos show a systemic pattern of abuse by the military. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Defense Department has “always been serious about investigating credible allegations of abuse.” “The policy of the Department of Defense is to treat all prisoners humanely, and those who have violated that policy have been investigated and disciplined,” he added. More than 400 people, Whitman said, have been disciplined based on investigations involving detainee abuse. The discipline ranged from prison sentences to demotions and letters of reprimand. The Pentagon wanted to prevent the images from being put into the public domain but decided to release them after losing two court cases, according to Whitman. “We felt this case had pretty much run its course,” he said. “Legal options at this point had become pretty limited.” Last month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed concerns about the photo release, saying that terrorist groups like al Qaeda could exploit the photos to recruit terrorists or incite violence. It’s a sentiment echoed by two veteran U.S. senators. In a March 7 letter to the Obama administration, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Joe Lieberman, I-Connecticut, expressed concern over the new photographs. “We know that many terrorists captured in Iraq have told American interrogators that one of the reasons they decided to join the violent jihadist war against America was what they saw on Al-Qaeda videos of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib,” the senators wrote. “Releasing these old photographs of detainee treatment now will provide new fodder to Al-Qaeda’s propaganda and recruitment operations, undercut the progress you have made in our international relations, and endanger America’s military and diplomatic personnel throughout the world.” Andrew McCarthy, writing on the Web site of the National Review, issued a harsh warning Tuesday: “American soldiers, American civilians, and other innocent people are going to die because Pres. Barack Obama wants to release photographs of prisoner abuse.” “The photos at issue won’t tell us anything significant about prisoner abuse, and they may very well serve to distort reality. What seems certain is that they will get Americans killed,” he added. David Rehbein, the national commander of the American Legion, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week that nothing good can come from the release of the photographs. “Other than self-flagellation by certain Americans, riots and future terrorist acts, what else do people expect will come from the release of these photographs” he asked. But group such as Human Rights First have argued in the past that releasing photographs of alleged abuse is vital. The group, in a release on its Web site, says it has set up a nonpartisan inquiry to “evaluate the full cost of abuses, look at how we got there, and come up with safeguards so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.” “The U.S. needs to invest in a forward-looking strategy on intelligence gathering that gives interrogators training and guidance on which techniques work, and which techniques — such as torture — don’t.”