Into the Thicket on Torture

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, May 17, 2009

President Obama's effort to block the release of photographs of U.S. prisoner abuse is a mistake that can be corrected. The president acts with good intentions -- and a profound understanding of the overstimulated times and society in which he lives. That alone represents progress at the White House.

Former Obama allies rush to accuse him of being a hypocrite and moral coward for contradicting himself on the issue of torture and accountability. The trophy for immediate odious hyperbole goes to Anthony D. Romero, head of the American Civil Liberties Union, who suggested that the Obama administration is "covering up not only for the Bush White House but for itself."

Ouch, counselor. You have evidence to back up an accusation of such reprehensible wrongdoing? Or are you intent on reducing the ACLU, one of the most vital organizations of American democracy, to one more pressure group that wields influence through bombast and public pressure rather than argument?

Make no mistake. Many of those ferociously condemning Obama and pushing for release of at least 44 photographs that the government wants shielded seek to do more than inform the public. They also hope to pressure the administration into prosecuting Bush administration officials and operatives by stirring public disgust, even if the photos contain no new direct evidence of high-level complicity in abuse or torture. Allied with this campaign are dissidents who oppose Obama's deepening involvement in Afghanistan and see the torture issue as a handy club.

But the politics of torture and prisoner abuse is an unwieldy tool. It wounds all who touch it, as the Bush team, Obama, Nancy Pelosi, the CIA and others have discovered. The moral clarity that the very words "torture" and "abuse" should bring disappears when they are invoked for partisan causes that -- like torture itself -- depend on ends to justify means.

As for contradicting himself, Obama is in fact making distinctions, and judgments based on distinctions, in deciding to ask an appeals court to withhold the photos sought by the ACLU while earlier releasing the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation" memos for the public to debate and judge.

These choices are two sides of the same coin for this president, who realizes that we live in a visual, digital age in which pictures and video overwhelm context and words. His mastery of visual and inspirational symbols gained him victory last November. He is not going to abandon control of them to others now.

Obama may have misjudged their effect, but his actions on the torture memos and the abuse photos both spring from a feeling that the country wants to move on from the time of trauma and intense fear that followed Sept. 11, 2001.

Candidate Obama promised to "win" the "good war" in Afghanistan. It was hard then to judge whether that language was merely a campaign tactic or sincere intention. He demonstrates that it was the latter by following his commanders' entreaties not to cooperate in the publication of images that will serve primarily to inflame emotions as 21,000 additional U.S. troops deploy to Afghanistan. A commander in chief putting U.S. forces in harm's way should do no less.

But blanket suppression of words or images is bad policy, even if intentions are good. Censorship always stirs greater distrust than does disclosure. It can also be used to shield wrongdoers. This is why a negotiated settlement rather than a court order is the best course for the ACLU and the administration.

The photographs fall into two categories: Abu Ghraib-type snapshots taken mindlessly and disgustingly by those committing the abuses -- don't bother to ask what they were thinking -- and government-generated investigative photographs of victims. Any pictures the government uses as evidence in a prosecution form part of a public record that should be released. So should images that the original snapshot-takers were foolish enough to circulate to friends and others digitally. The remainder should be filed away as investigative material for possible use as evidence. Not everything in police files gets published.

This approach would remove some of the illicit allure of this material. It has become a form of war pornography for segments of an increasingly jaded audience that turns to pseudo-political argument for titillation or shock. The Pentagon has already provided the ACLU with full textual descriptions of what the photographs show -- largely point-of-capture battlefield shots of injured prisoners -- in the more than 200 cases that are involved, U.S. officials say.

In the end, the White House has to know that it argues a weak case for total suppression. It may be embracing a lost cause for the symbolic value that act offers the military. Pray that Obama's escalation of the war in Afghanistan does not meet the same fate.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company