Saturday, May 23, 2009

On Those Secret Photos of Systematic Torture

Last week, President Obama said he would attempt to block the release of photographs showing military personnel abusing detainees in seven prisons across Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration. The 44 photos were set to be released after the ACLU won a 2003 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Defense. 

The Argument So Far

Back in April, the President and the Pentagon were all set to release the photos to the ACLU on the court-ordered date of May 28th. But as the date approached, Obama decided the photos should not be made public, saying they don't add much to what the public already knows and they would "further enflame anti-American opinion" and endanger Americans soldiers. The government will now appeal the case a second time, and there's every reason to think they'll lose again. The judges who have heard this case have already specifically dismissed Obama's arguments, saying that a vague notion that the release would endanger American troops is outweighed by "the significant public interest in the release of these photographs" and by "[furthering] the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners."

The photos are going to come out eventually. It's unfortunate that President Obama is attaching himself to the stonewalling we grew to expect from the Bush administration.

The Real Issue With The Photos

Let me tell you why these photos are important and why the White House wants them to go away. The photos will further confirm what is growing harder to ignore: Abu Ghraib was not an aberration but part of a widespread system of torture and abuse. Lindy England and the gang at Abu Ghraib were not just a few "bad apples." They were following an inhuman policy that was passed down to them from the highest levels of government. And similar abuse was happening in at least six other prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add all this to the growing evidence that the Bush administration used torture to try to justify the invasion of Iraq, and the story just keeps getting darker. 

When released, these photos will be met with outrage both here and overseas. Absolutely. But then they will be met with a stronger movement to hold the architects of torture and abuse accountable for their crimes. And as I've said before, the Obama administration would rather not be bothered by this stuff right now. They've got other things going on, plenty of which are great, and prosecuting war crimes is not on their to-do list--which is of course illegal in itself.

A Potential Compromise

How about this as a sort of middle ground, while we wait for the eventual release or just in case the release is successfully blocked: The government should show the photos to a group of media who could report what the pictures show. They would not be allowed to take photos themselves or make copies, and there could be a time limit on how long they can look at them. It would be sort of like the weird thing John McCain did with his medical records during the campaign. The public gets the benefit of having the pictures described to us by someone other than Pentagon officials (which is all we've had so far). And the administration avoids having embarrassing pictures all over TV.

On a final note... 

The ACLU kind of kicks ass. Don't they? We wouldn't even be talking about these photos if the ACLU hadn't been fighting for them in court for six years. And it's the same for countless stories like this. So many of the basic components of our democracy are maintained because the ACLU is in the trenches. It's easy to see why right-wingers fear and loathe them. 


Camp Papa said...

As a dues paying, card carrying, member of the ACLU, you're welcome.

Seriously, shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001, I wrote a letter to the local paper saying that the world would be watching to see if we could defend ourselves AND protect our own civil liberties. Then I wrote a check to the ACLU. In America it has always been about the means we use to achieve our ends. Indeed the only thing that distinguishes us from our enemies is the means.

Better Than Machines said...

I wish more people had read your letter. I think it took a while before those ideas were widespread.

I'm not a member myself. But I'm considering it. The ACLU are the good guys in so many legal battles I read about. There are cases right now about "child soldiers" being held at Gitmo--people who were 14 or 15 when taken into custody.

Becky said...

I keep seeing all these editorials lauding him for that decision. I hadn't thought about the increased pressure to prosecute that would come from seeing those images.

And yeah, I joined the ACLU after 9/11 too--they reeled me in with the whole "Freedom won't defend itself" campaign. They do seem to be willing fight the good fight.

Better Than Machines said...

Yeah, his decision to block the photo release was pretty darn popular. I saw a CNN poll that said 75% of Americans supported his decision. A big factor in that has gotta be that this stuff is just really depressing. People are probably sick of hearing about it.