May 14, 2009 by Daniel Stack
On April 23, 2009, the ACLU released a press release stating:
In a letter addressed to a federal court today, the Department of Defense announced that it will make public by May 28 a “substantial number” of photos depicting the abuse of prisoners by U.S. personnel. The photos, which are being released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2004, include images from prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan at locations other than Abu Ghraib.
However, President Obama has recently reversed course on this matter, stating:
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.
It should come as no surprise that the ACLU is not pleased by this change:
It is true that these photos would be disturbing; the day we are no longer disturbed by such repugnant acts would be a sad one. In America, every fact and document gets known – whether now or years from now. And when these photos do see the light of day, the outrage will focus not only on the commission of torture by the Bush administration but on the Obama administration’s complicity in covering them up. Any outrage related to these photos should be due not to their release but to the very crimes depicted in them. Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated.
If the Obama administration continues down this path, it will betray not only its promises to the American people, but its commitment to this nation’s most fundamental principles. President Obama has said we should turn the page, but we cannot do that until we fully learn how this nation veered down the path of criminality and immorality, who allowed that to happen and whose lives were mutilated as a result. Releasing these photos – as painful as it might be – is a critical step toward that accounting. The American people deserve no less.
[Full ACLU press release here]
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a “card carrying member of the ACLU”.
I normally don’t have a problem expressing my opinion on things. But in this matter I have truly mixed feelings. I do believe that in the short-term release of these photos pose a potential risk to American soldiers abroad. And this is no threat to abstract people. Through my church, through reconnecting with old friends on Facebook, through work, I know real people who are or have been overseas serving their country. So I totally get Obama’s concerns. He is commander-in-chief and has an obligation to the troops under his command.
That said, I think it would have been better to release these photographs. He has other roles beyond commander-in-chief. The executive branch is responsible for enforcing our nation’s laws and these photographs are evidence of broken laws. And as the ACLU states, correctly in my opinion, these photographs will get out sooner or later. I believe it would be better to release them ourselves as opposed to getting blindsided some months or years from now, much like the release of the original Abu Ghraib photographs. (It is worth remembering that these photographs are from that same period – they do not represent new abuses.)
I’d really like to “thank” the folks that put us in this mess. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney established an environment that allowed and encouraged this type of behavior. See for instance this excerpt from the Senate Armed Services Committee on the abuses:
Conclusion 19: The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.
I believe Archbishop Lajolo, Vatican envoy to Baghdad put it right when he said:
The torture? A heavier blow to the United States than Sept. 11 with the particular that the blow was not inflicted by terrorists but by the Americans on themselves.
I think the best thing we can do at this point is to clear the air as best we can. President Obama would like to put this behind us, but I don’t think that is possible until we come clean. At least if we release the photographs ourselves we can take actions to protect our troops as best we can. If we’re blindsided by a media leak we won’t have that ability.