President Barack Obama has reversed a decision to release photos showing abuse of “war on terror” detainees, saying he feared it would cause a backlash against US troops abroad.
The about-face on Wednesday came after the administration announced last month it had agreed to release hundreds of photos from US-run prisons in Iraq and elsewhere in response to a long-running lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The Pentagon said US military commanders had sternly warned that the photos could be used as a recruiting tool by extremists and jeopardise the safety of US troops.
Federal courts have ruled against the government in a series of decisions, but Obama had instructed administration lawyers to try a new argument that the photos could put troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk, the White House said.
According to the Justice Department, the decision meant the government would renew its legal fight against the release of the images, and would consider appealing the case to the Supreme Court.
Obama said issuing the photos, which were used as evidence in criminal investigations of US soldiers accused of abusing detainees during George Bush’s administration, would “inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in greater danger” without shedding any new light on past abuses.
“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefits to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” he told reporters.
Human rights groups condemned the decision.
“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,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero.
“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.”
But Obama countered that the photos were “not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib”.
Photographs showing abuse of inmates at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused global outrage and were exploited by al-Qaeda and associated groups to recruit and rally anti-US sentiment.
Obama also said he was concerned that the images could have a “chilling effect” on future investigations into possible mistreatment of detainees.
But he insisted that “any abuse of detainees is unacceptable” and would not be tolerated.
The Bush administration had argued against the release of the photos in part by saying it violated the privacy rights of the detainees under the Geneva Conventions.
The photos are part of a wider debate about interrogation tactics against terror suspects employed by the Bush administration, with rights groups and Democratic lawmakers charging Bush-era figures approved torture.
“The real danger,” Human Rights Watch counterterrorism adviser Stacy Sullivan said, “comes not from the knowledge that abuse happened, but the sense that those responsible for planning and authorising it haven’t been held accountable.”
Obama made the decision after weeks of discussions and amid growing anxiety within the administration about the possible effect of the photos in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, defence officials said.
As a May 28 deadline approached for the release of the photos under an agreement with the ACLU, “anxiety levels went up across the government” about the possible fallout from the images, Pentagon spokesperson Bryan Whitman told reporters.
The commander of US forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, was an especially “passionate” opponent of releasing the photos and his views had an impact on Defence Secretary Robert Gates and other officials, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
Odierno “was really the one who persuaded the secretary that this was something that had to be fought”, Morrell added.
Gates and other members of Obama’s national security team argued against the release of the images, saying it could undermine US efforts in Afghanistan just as additional troops are deployed and before crucial elections in August, according to Morrell.
Officials concluded that “the timing was particularly bad in Afghanistan”, he said. — AFP