In reversing an earlier commitment to release photos of U.S. soldiers abusing prisoners, President Barack Obama succumbed to a propaganda barrage unleashed by former Bush administration officials, their congressional allies, the right-wing news media and holdovers who retain key jobs under Obama.
Obama said Wednesday that his decision stemmed from his personal review of the photos and his concern that their release would endanger American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the reversal also comes after several weeks of mounting attacks against him as weak on national security.
That assault has been led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has appeared on numerous talk shows to denounce Obama for endangering U.S. security because he has abandoned the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” for coercing information from terrorism suspects.
Last weekend, Cheney’s daughter Liz, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs, went on Fox News to excoriate Obama for having agreed to release the abuse photos because, she claimed, the President found it “fashionable” to “side with terrorists.” She also questioned whether Obama “really cared about” U.S. soldiers.
"I think that it is really appalling that the administration is taking this step," Liz Cheney said. "I have not seen the pictures, I don't know what is in them. But clearly what they [Obama officials] are doing is releasing images that show American military men and women in a very negative light.
“And I have heard from families of service members, from families of 9/11 victims, this question: When did it become so fashionable for us to side, really, with the terrorists? For us to put information out that hurts American soldiers."
Obama faced pressure, too, from two senators who were staunch supporters of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his aggressive “war on terror” policies – Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Graham and Lieberman called on Obama “in the strongest possible terms to fight the release of these old pictures of detainees in the war on terror, including appealing [a federal court] decision ... to the Supreme Court and pursuing all legal options to prevent the public disclosure of these pictures."
The two senators wrote, "The release of these old photographs of past behavior that has now been clearly prohibited will serve no public good, but will empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country's image, and endanger our men and women in uniform."
Also pushing Obama to keep the photos secret were two military holdovers from the Bush administration – Gen. Ray Odierno, Bush’s last commander of U.S. forces in Iraq who remains there under Obama, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said it was Odierno who convinced Gates to make a fight over the photo release.
Obama’s reversal stunned human rights groups, including the ACLU which had prevailed in federal court to have the photos released and had negotiated an agreement with the Obama administration that set May 28 as the deadline for turning over the photos.
ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said Wednesday “the Obama administration’s adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the President’s stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government. ...
“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.”
Obama’s decision to fight to conceal the photos marks an about-face on the open-government policies that he proclaimed during his first days in office.
On Jan. 21, he signed an executive order instructing all federal agencies and departments to "adopt a presumption in favor" of Freedom of Information Act requests and promised to make the federal government more transparent.
"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," Obama’s order said. "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.”
Though Obama’s Justice Department did maintain some of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” legal positions, Obama ordered government lawyers to stop Bush’s battles against Freedom of Information cases which sought to expose evidence of torture and other abuses.
Last month, in releasing four Justice Department memos from 2002 and 2005 – which created a legal framework for torturing terror suspects – Obama said that withholding them “would only serve to deny facts that have been in the public domain for some time.”
Obama also announced that he would not fight a federal appeals court ruling ordering the Defense Department to turn over photographs of prisoner abuse. He made that decision, administration officials said, because the White House did not believe it could convince the Supreme Court to review the case.
But Obama changed course Wednesday. In a letter to U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein, acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin said “we have been informed today that, upon further reflection at the highest levels of government, the government has decided to pursue further options regarding” a decision it made April 23, to release the photos.
Then, speaking to reporters, Obama said, “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. ... 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.”
Obama added that the photographs “are not particularly sensational.”
Obama’s reversal marks a renewal of U.S. hypocrisy regarding the abuse of detainees and the hiding of evidence about such crimes.
For instance, last September in upholding a lower court ruling ordering the release of the photos, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit noted that past U.S. administrations had championed the release of photos that showed prisoners of war being abused and tortured.
Notably, after World War II, the U.S. government publicized photos of prisoners in Japanese and German prisons and concentration camps, which the court noted “showed emaciated prisoners, subjugated detainees, and even corpses. But the United States championed the use of the photos as a means of holding the perpetrators accountable.”
The Bush administration’s legal arguments were rife with other examples of hypocrisy, including an argument that release of the photos – even with the personal characteristics of detainees obscured – would violate their privacy rights under the Geneva Conventions.
The irony was that the Bush administration — with the help of legal opinions drafted by Justice Department lawyers — had maintained that detainees from the war in Afghanistan and the larger “war on terror” were not entitled to prisoner of war protections under the Geneva Conventions.
Indeed, an action memo signed by President Bush on Feb. 7, 2002, opened the door to abusive treatment by declaring that the Third Geneva Convention, which sets standards for treatment of prisoners from armed conflicts, did not apply to the conflict with al-Qaeda and that Taliban detainees were not entitled to the convention's legal protections.
The ACLU argued that the Bush administration’s legal strategy was “surprising because there would be no photos of abuse to request had the government cared this much about the Geneva Conventions before the abuses occurred and the photos were taken.”
In disputing the administration’s selective application of these international standards, the ACLU noted that “the Geneva Conventions were designed to prevent the abuse of prisoners, not to derail efforts to hold the government accountable for those abuses.”
Federal courts agreed with the ACLU’s arguments. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals deemed the Bush administration’s position legally flawed and added that releasing “the photographs is likely to further the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners.”
The appeals court also shot down the Bush administration’s attempt to radically expand Freedom of Information Act exemptions for withholding the photos, stating that the Bush administration had attempted to use the FOIA exemptions as "an all-purpose damper on global controversy."
Now, after Bush administration defenders pummeled Obama as soft on national security, he has agreed to lift up their tattered legal banner and carry it forward.
Jason Leopold has launched his own Web site, The Public Record, at www.pubrecord.org.
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This story was published on May 13, 2009.