Obama Reverses Pledge to Release Photos of Detainee Abuse

President Obama says the detainee abuse photos he wants to block from release are "not particularly sensational" but would endanger U.S. troops if publicized. Video by AP
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009

A month after making public once-classified Justice Department memos detailing the Bush administration's coercive methods of interrogation, President Obama yesterday chose secrecy over disclosure, saying he will seek to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting the abuse of detainees held by U.S. authorities abroad.

Obama agreed less than three weeks ago not to oppose the photos' release, but he changed his mind after viewing some of the images and hearing warnings from his generals in Iraq and in Afghanistan that such a move would endanger U.S. troops deployed there.

"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," Obama said yesterday. "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 danger."

Civil liberties and human rights advocates said the reversal would serve to maintain the Bush administration's legacy of secrecy. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Obama's shift was "deeply disappointing."

"Even given that the photos will undoubtedly generate outrage in the region, the best way to dampen that outrage is to hold those responsible accountable," Roth said.

The photos were assembled as part of about 200 criminal investigations conducted before and after the disclosure in 2004 of widespread prisoner abuse by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, the former Iraqi prison that the U.S. military turned into a detention and intelligence-gathering center.

Previously released pictures taken at Abu Ghraib -- depicting Iraqis stacked naked in piles and pyramids, tormented by dogs, chained to beds and placed in other painful or humiliating positions -- enraged many in the Middle East and became symbols of the deeply unpopular U.S. invasion and military occupation of Iraq.

But no commanding officers or Defense Department officials were jailed or fired in connection with the abuse, which the Bush administration dismissed as the misbehavior of low-ranking soldiers.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2003 for all photographs pertaining to U.S. military detention operations. It filed a lawsuit the following year after that request was denied.

Last September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ordered the photographs released. The Bush administration challenged the ruling, but the court denied that petition in March.

Amrit Singh, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case, said the court ordered the release of 21 photos taken in Afghanistan and in Iraq outside of Abu Ghraib. She said 23 other photos taken in undetermined locations are part of the lawsuit. Civil liberties advocates say that as many as 2,000 other photos could be subject to release.

"There's a substantial number of photographs about which we know nothing," Singh said. "All we know is that some of them depict prisoner abuse."

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