By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 14, 2009
A month after making public once-classified Justice Department memos detailing the Bush administration's coercive methods of interrogation, President Obama yesterday chose secrecy over disclosure, saying he will seek to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting the abuse of detainees held by U.S. authorities abroad. Obama agreed less than three weeks ago not to oppose the photos' release, but he changed his mind after viewing some of the images and hearing warnings from his generals in Iraq and in Afghanistan that such a move would endanger U.S. troops deployed there.
"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," Obama said yesterday. "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."
Civil liberties and human rights advocates said the reversal would serve to maintain the Bush administration's legacy of secrecy. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Obama's shift was "deeply disappointing." "Even given that the photos will undoubtedly generate outrage in the region, the best way to dampen that outrage is to hold those responsible accountable," Roth said.
The photos were assembled as part of about 200 criminal investigations conducted before and after the disclosure in 2004 of widespread prisoner abuse by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, the former Iraqi prison that the U.S. military turned into a detention and intelligence-gathering center. Previously released pictures taken at Abu Ghraib -- depicting Iraqis stacked naked in piles and pyramids, tormented by dogs, chained to beds and placed in other painful or humiliating positions -- enraged many in the Middle East and became symbols of the deeply unpopular U.S. invasion and military occupation of Iraq. But no commanding officers or Defense Department officials were jailed or fired in connection with the abuse, which the Bush administration dismissed as the misbehavior of low-ranking soldiers.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request in October 2003 for all photographs pertaining to U.S. military detention operations. It filed a lawsuit the following year after that request was denied. Last September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ordered the photographs released. The Bush administration challenged the ruling, but the court denied that petition in March.
Amrit Singh, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case, said the court ordered the release of 21 photos taken in Afghanistan and in Iraq outside of Abu Ghraib. She said 23 other photos taken in undetermined locations are part of the lawsuit. Civil liberties advocates say that as many as 2,000 other photos could be subject to release. "There's a substantial number of photographs about which we know nothing," Singh said. "All we know is that some of them depict prisoner abuse."
In an April 23 letter to Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Obama administration stated that "the parties have reached an agreement that the Defense Department will produce all the responsive images by May 28, 2009." Press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that Obama had not viewed the photos at that time. Last week, Obama gathered White House lawyers and informed them that he did not "feel comfortable" releasing the photos because doing so could provoke a backlash against U.S. troops, administration officials said....
You know ... in general, I like our current president. And, if nothing else, I somewhat prefer him to the excesses of the previous administration.
But I am strongly beginning to wish he'd just think before he commits to something, and decide beforehand if he's truly willing to follow through. Any person with a quarter of a functioning brain cell could have told him that these photos would get people angry about the abuse all over again. I'm sure that several people actually did. No doubt there was something in the new set of images that shocked or startled him enough to make him change course. But of course, he can't say that, because that would be a public admission that there's more there there, so to speak.
And that, I suspect, is the key behind this recent reversal. He has been desperately fighting to avoid any sort of investigation, for whatever reason. He doesn't want his agenda to be sidetracked by high-visibility investigations, and he's got a lot more immediate issues to contend with. He doesn't want to expend any of a steadily and rapidly declining pool of political capital to deal with the situation. Moreover, investigating abusive interrogations will expose in a more thorough way the CIA's rendition network and its affiliated semi-secret and secret prisons. It will throw the heretofore strangely ignored prison at Bagram and its alleged abuses into sharp relief. The potential for all of this to mushroom into a massive investigation of not only the CIA but also of the armed services responsible for guarding these prisoners is not inconsiderable.
That said, the desire of our highest elected official to avoid investigating known and suspected wrongdoing is unseemly. It is, in and of itself, wrong.
By Carrie Johnson and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 15, 2009 10:28 AM
President Obama is expected to announce today that he intends to keep military commissions to try some detainees at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but with greater legal protections for defendants, an administration official said last night. The administration will also seek a second suspension of legal proceedings at Guantanamo so it can refine the system, the official said. Obama had received a 120-day suspension from military judges in January.
Obama's announcement will come a day after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. assured Republican lawmakers that the Justice Department would not release any detainees whom he considered dangerous onto U.S. soil. Holder, appearing at his first oversight hearing since taking office three months ago, told members of the House Judiciary Committee that no final determinations had been made about how to handle 241 men being held at Guantanamo Bay. "We're not going to do anything, anything that would put the American people at risk -- nothing," Holder said.
The fate of the detainees has become a topic of intensifying interest as the Obama administration's self-imposed deadline for closing the prison draws nearer. Officials have until January to shutter the facility, but federal judges hearing legal petitions from the men are growing weary of waiting for their release....
This, however, is a more unforgiveable reversal of position. After having argued and campaigned on the issue that our criminal justice system is adequate to this issue, having managed it several times previously, Obama now decides that military tribunals are sufficient to the cause, thereby guaranteeing yet another round or ten of court battles as the prisoners argue, again, that they are not. And, in all likelihood, not only will courts agree with them, but they will be rather short with an administration that is defying decisions on this very issue handed down to its predecessor. As far as I can tell, this is a consequence of his having promised to close Guantanamo, only to realize that the only available choice with the current prisoners is to release them into the US -- and Congress is having snit fits about that, despite there being, as far as we know, fairly little reliable evidence that most of these people did anything aside from being in the wrong place at the right time. (Of course we don't know anything; neither the Bush administration nor this one has any intention of letting us know anything about these people.)
I can appreciate that this administration has had a more fraught transition than most. Two wars and a worldwide economic collapse would tax anyone. But at some point, they need to decide whether or not they really want to be known as the Democrat version of the Bush administration on these and other issues. Because if they do, we might as well have picked McCain.Posted by iain at May 15, 2009 10:29 AM