"Now, let me be clear: I am concerned about how the release of these photos would be -- would impact on the safety of our troops. I have made it very clear to all who are within the chain of command, however, of the United States Armed Forces that the abuse of detainees in our custody is prohibited and will not be tolerated. ... Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated."--President Barack Obama
President Obama has been accused of falling short of his campaign promises for a more transparent government. It certainly appears that the Obama administration is borrowing from George W. Bush's playbook, at least when it comes to keeping information on particularly controversial government programs from being disclosed. For example, Obama has increasingly relied on Bush's state secrets argument in several legal cases dealing with the CIA's extraordinary rendition program, the government's warrantless wiretapping of Americans' phone calls, and the extent to which telecommunications companies aided the government in its eavesdropping efforts.
However, despite harsh criticism from civil liberties groups such as the ACLU, Obama's recent decision to block the release of photographs documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan should not be blamed on his administration's lack of transparency. On this particular issue, at least, less disclosure might not be a bad thing.
The photos in question, which could number close to 2,000, are at the center of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2004. A federal appeals court ordered the Bush administration to release the photos in September 2008. And in March 2009, the government's request for a rehearing was denied.
The Obama administration subsequently announced its intention to release the photos by May 28. However, according to the Washington Post, Obama "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." As Obama stated, "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. 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."
In the wake of his reversal regarding the photos' release, Obama has been harshly condemned by political supporters and civil liberties groups. One ACLU lawyer went so far as to declare that the Obama administration "has essentially become complicit with the torture that was rampant during the Bush years by being complicit in its coverup."
Yet releasing these torture photos, some of which have already been leaked and/or described in detail by the international news media, will do nothing more than titillate voyeurs and give radio talk-show hosts and television news channels something to talk about until the next news sensation arises. It certainly will not aid the cause of justice or increase government transparency.
After all, these photos are not revelatory. Previously released pictures in 2004 clearly documented the depravity of some American military personnel who took part in torturing detainees. Who can forget the horrific images of detainees stripped naked, hooded, stacked one on top of the other into human pyramids, and forced into sexual positions while smiling soldiers stood nearby.
As a result of the global outcry, 11 soldiers were tried and convicted, and others were reprimanded. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, "Bush's overall performance rating sank to what was then the lowest of his presidency, 46 percent. The poll also showed support for the war at its lowest since before it began, with only 44 percent saying they believed it was worthwhile. It was a blow from which the administration, especially then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, never fully recovered."
In the end, some good came of the release of that first set of photos--at least in terms of the nation engaging in an ongoing and much-needed national dialogue about the direction of the war, the Bush administration's stance on torture, and America's credibility in the eyes of the world. However, there is little good that can come from releasing the photos in question at this time. If the photos are as pornographic and offensive as those released in 2004, they could very well incite riots in Muslim countries and fuel intense anti-American sentiment.
Worst of all, they could place American military forces and civilians in greater jeopardy. For example, days after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, American contractor Nicholas Berg was beheaded, allegedly in retaliation for the prisoner abuses. The video footage of his execution was even posted on the Internet.
As Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, one of President Obama's primary concerns must be for the safety of the troops. Unfortunately, the political firestorm which has erupted over the fate of the torture photos is obscuring this greater concern.
We must not allow ourselves to be so caught up in politics that we lose sight of what is really important for the safety of our troops and the future of the country. Releasing these torture photos will not shed any further light on the wrongs perpetrated. The cat, so to speak, is already out of the bag.
The real consideration should be the impact on the troops in the field. And with 20,000 American forces preparing to deploy to Afghanistan and the fighting season in full swing, as Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell stated, "The timing is particularly bad."
As it now stands, Obama has until June 9 to appeal the lower court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. If the high court agrees to hear the case, it could be next year before anything is decided. In the meantime, as long as the appropriate oversight committees in Congress are aware of and have studied the photos, it's time that we focus on other pressing issues. These include protecting the troops, ending these wars, getting the economy back on track, and holding this president accountable to the rule of law.