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."
In an April 23 letter to Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Obama administration stated that "the parties have reached an agreement that the Defense Department will produce all the responsive images by May 28, 2009." Press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that Obama had not viewed the photos at that time.
Last week, Obama gathered White House lawyers and informed them that he did not "feel comfortable" releasing the photos because doing so could provoke a backlash against U.S. troops, administration officials said.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, said the administration had been informed that the time to challenge the release had passed. He said Obama had also been informed that the Bush administration had challenged the photos' release only on law enforcement and privacy grounds, and had never invoked a national security exemption to the Freedom of Information Act.
"That's a big fact when you are commander in chief," Emanuel said. "When you have a window that you were told had been shut that is still open, an argument that's never been made and a secretary of defense who is telling you that your commanders on the ground are concerned, you make this decision."
At the end of the meeting, Obama directed the lawyers to prepare a challenge to the photos' release. He informed Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, of his decision at the end of a Tuesday meeting at the White House.
"Odierno was really the one who persuaded" Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates "that this was one that had to be fought," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, who said Gen. David D. McKiernan, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, also expressed concern about the administration's position.
"With 20,000 additional forces coming into Afghanistan, an election in August and the fighting season in full swing right now, the timing is particularly bad," Morrell said.
Gibbs said Obama has seen a representative sample of the photos, which the president described yesterday as "not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib."
But one congressional staff member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the photos, said the pictures are more graphic than those that have been made public from Abu Ghraib. "When they are released, there will be a major outcry for an investigation by a commission or some other vehicle," the staff member said.
Human rights officials said Obama's decision to oppose the release of the photos is less consequential than his pending decisions on restoring modified Bush-era military commissions to try detainees and on whether to allow a wide-ranging investigation -- followed by possible prosecutions -- into interrogation methods.
"This essentially renders meaningless President Obama's pledge of transparency and accountability that he made in the early days after taking office," said Singh, the ACLU lawyer. The Obama administration "has essentially become complicit with the torture that was rampant during the Bush years by being complicit in its coverup."
Staff writers Ann Scott Tyson and Walter Pincus and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.