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Obama should release photos of abuse


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POSTED: Sunday, May 17, 2009

President Barack Obama's reversal of his decision last month to release photographs documenting abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan has bewildered some of his political supporters and infuriated others, for good reason. The presidential candidate who promised transparency and accountability instead looks to be furthering the Bush administration's policy of concealing evidence of torture.

The Obama administration agreed to release 21 photos to the American Civil Liberties Union after federal judges had ruled against the government in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit. The Justice Department now says it will appeal the ruling after “;further reflection at the highest levels of government.”;

Obama changed his mind after being approached by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had been persuaded by top commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent the photos from being made public. The photos, which reportedly number as many as 2,000, “;are not particularly sensational when compared to the images we remember from Abu Ghraib,”; Obama said.

Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said officials had described them to him as “;worse than Abu Ghraib.”; The president expressed concern that the consequence of their publication could be “;to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger,”; just as the leak of the Abu Ghraib photos had enraged Iraqis and served al-Qaida as a recruitment tool. The photos at issue in the current case already have begun to be leaked.

The argument that the photos — sensational or not — would reflect poorly on the United States can be made to suppress any information. But the damage would be greater if other countries become aware through leaked material that a cover-up of torture under the Bush administration — under the euphemism of “;enhanced interrogation techniques”; — is being prolonged by the Obama administration.

“;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,”; Romero said.

Judges in the case rejected the Bush administration's claim of privacy issues as an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for materials that could “;endanger the life or physical safety of an individual.”; The ACLU has agreed to block identifying facial features of prisoners and government employees. Obama's Justice Department could classify the photos as secret on grounds of national security, a device that courts rarely challenge. The Supreme Court has rarely second-guessed the executive branch's decisions to classify documents to protect national security.

The president has until June 9 to appeal the court ruling or classify the photos, which could invite a new case by the ACLU while keeping the photos from public view for months or even years. He should take the third option of holding to its initial agreement and making public the photos.