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Hesitation at White House On Releasing Abuse Photos

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Obama administration signaled yesterday that it may be rethinking its promise to release several dozen photos depicting abuse or alleged abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad.

Justice Department officials told a federal judge late last month that the U.S. government did not intend to fight a court order to turn over a total of 44 photos, which were sought by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.

A U.S. attorney was unequivocal in a letter to the judge on April 23: "The parties have reached an agreement that the Defense Department will produce all the responsive images by May 28, 2009."

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters yesterday that President Obama has "great concern" about the impact that releasing the photos would have on soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Asked whether the Justice Department's decision might be reversed, Gibbs declined to reaffirm the government's intentions.

"I don't want to get into that right now," he said, adding a moment later that "I'm not going to add much to that right now."

A follow-up e-mail to Gibbs seeking clarification was not returned. Two other members of the White House communications department declined to elaborate, pointing back to Gibbs's comments during the briefing.

The comments drew immediate criticism from a lawyer for the ACLU. "The suggestion that they may be reconsidering that decision . . . is deeply troubling to us," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the group's National Security Program.

Another ACLU lawyer handling the suit said that the photos will depict a pattern by U.S. officials of improperly treating detainees.

"We expect the government to hold true to their word," said Amrit Singh. "It is critical that they be released so that the full scope and scale of prisoner abuse can be examined by the public."

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) wrote Obama last week to urge him to fight the release of the photos.

"The release of these old photographs of past behavior that has now been clearly prohibited can serve no public good, but will empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country's image, and endanger our men and women in uniform," wrote Graham and Lieberman.

Questions about the photos come on the heels of Obama's decision to disclose memos from top Bush administration officials about the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," which critics consider torture.

The memos have sparked a fierce debate about those techniques, with former vice president Richard B. Cheney accusing the Obama administration of undermining the country's safety by ruling them out of bounds.

The photos also stir memories of images from the former Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which fueled a firestorm of controversy about abuse of detainees. The current photos are from other prisons.

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