WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama declared Wednesday he
would try to block the court-ordered release of photos showing U.S.
troops abusing prisoners, abruptly reversing his position out of
concern the pictures would "further inflame anti-American
opinion" and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama's turnabout set off immediate reactions from bloggers,
both liberals who decried that he was buckling to political
pressure and conservatives who agreed with the decision but said it
proved the president was a flip-flopper.
The White House had said last month it would not oppose the
release of dozens of photos from military investigations of alleged
misconduct. But American commanders in the war zones expressed deep concern about fresh damage the photos might do, especially as the U.S. tries to wind down the Iraq war and step up operations against
the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
When photos emerged in 2004 from the infamous U.S.-run Abu
Ghraib prison in Iraq, showing grinning American soldiers posing
with detainees - some of the prisoners naked, some being held on
leashes - the pictures caused a huge anti-American backlash around
the globe, particularly in the Muslim world.
Obama, realizing how high emotions run on detainee treatment
during the Bush administration and now, made it a point to
personally explain his change of heart, stopping to address TV
cameras late in the day as he left the White House for a flight to
He said the photos had already served their purpose in
investigations of "a small number of individuals." Those cases
were all concluded by 2004, and the president said "the
individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate
actions have been taken."
The Pentagon conducted 200 investigations into alleged abuse
connected with the photos that are now in question. The
administration did not provide an immediate accounting of how they
"This is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or
sought to justify inappropriate action," Obama said of the photos.
"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 greater danger."
The Justice Department immediately filed a notice with the court
of its new position on the release, including that it was
considering an appeal with the Supreme Court. The government has
until June 9 to do so.
Obama said, "I want to emphasize that these photos that were
requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially
when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu
Still, he said he had made it newly clear: "Any abuse of
detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers
our security. It will not be tolerated."
The effort to keep the photos from becoming public represented
for many a sharp reversal from Obama's repeated pledges for open
government, and in particular from his promise to be forthcoming
with information that courts have ruled should be publicly
As such, it invited criticism from the more liberal segments of
the Democratic Party, which want a full accounting - and even
redress - for what they see as the misdeeds of the Bush
"The decision to not release the photographs makes a mockery of
President Obama's promise of transparency and accountability,"
said ACLU attorney Amrit Singh, who had argued and won the case in
question before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
"It is essential that these photographs be released so that the
public can examine for itself the full scale and scope of prisoner
abuse that was conducted in its name."
Human Rights Watch called the decision a blow to transparency
One Huffington Post blogger called the decision "a terrible
mistake" and declared that Obama had buckled under pressure from
former Vice President Dick Cheney.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans welcomed the change, however. A
military group also said it was relieved.
"These photos represent isolated incidents where the offending
servicemen and women have already been prosecuted," said Brian
Wise, executive director of Military Families United.
The reactions were a reverse of what happened after Obama's
decision last month to voluntarily release documents that detailed
brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA against terror
suspects. Those also came out in response to an ACLU lawsuit, and
his decision then brought harsh and still-continuing criticism from
This time he's kicking the decision back into court, where his
administration still may be forced into releasing the photos.
Indeed, there is some evidence that the administration has
little case left.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president instructed
administration lawyers to challenge the photos' release based on
national security implications. He said the argument was not used
before in "the most effective" way.
But the Bush administration already argued against the release
on national security grounds - and lost.
"It is plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents
could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition
forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan," the three-judge
appeals panel wrote in September 2008.
The Justice Department concluded after that that further appeal
would probably be fruitless, and last month, Gibbs said the
administration felt "compelled" to act on that conclusion. Thus,
the administration assured a federal judge that it would turn over
the material by May 28, including one batch of 21 photos and
another of 23 images. The government also told the judge it was
"processing for release a substantial number of other images,"
for a total expected to be in the hundreds.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday that
Obama always felt uncomfortable with that outcome and pressed his
team to find other recourse. After first believing all avenues were
shut, they concluded there were other options - both in the amount
of time left and the legal arguments - and that led to the decision
the White House announced, Emanuel said.
But the lower court also has already rejected another argument
the president and his spokesman made, that the photos add little of
value to the public's understanding of the issue. "This contention
disregards FOIA's central purpose of furthering governmental
accountability," the appeals court panel concluded in the same
Obama's own Jan. 21 memorandum on honoring the Freedom of
Information Act also takes a different line. "The government
should not keep information confidential merely because public
officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and
failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract
fears," it said.
The president informed Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S.
troops in Iraq, of his decision during a White House meeting on
Gen. David Petraeus, the senior commander for both wars, had
also weighed in against the release, as had Gen. David McKiernan,
the outgoing top general in Afghanistan.
Military commanders' concerns were most intense with respect to
Afghanistan. The release would coincide with the spring thaw that
usually heralds the year's toughest fighting there - and as
thousands of new U.S. troops head into Afghanistan's volatile
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he had once held the view
that it might be best to "go through the pain once" and release a
large batch of images now, since so many are at issue in multiple
lawsuits. But he - and the president - changed their minds when
Odierno and McKiernan expressed "very great worry that release of
these photographs will cost American lives," Gates said before the
House Armed Services Committee.
"That's all it took for me," Gates said.
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