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Obama Promises Support to Opponents of Detainee Photo Release

Obama says the photos revealing alleged abuse of detainees will remain classified, despite ACLU pressure for their release.

by
Jeff Emanuel

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August 21, 2009 - 12:00 am
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President Barack Obama has reached out to Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) over controversial photographs of alleged detainee “abuse” in the war on terror, pledging to support congressional legislation blocking their release in a letter to the two senators.

This statement of support, which came at the end of July, is the latest step in Obama’s effort to distance himself from a pledge made early in his still-young presidency. Obama had pledged to comply with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which sought to obtain, and to publicize, all “documents concerning the treatment of Detainees in United States custody, the death of Detainees in United States custody, and the rendition of Detainees and other individuals to countries known to employ torture” in the war on terror. This request included a call for as few as 21, and as many as 200, photographs showing alleged detainee abuse to be released into the ACLU’s custody.

The initial FOIA request for the photographs, which were discovered as part of a criminal investigation of detainee mistreatment, was filed in 2003; when it was not immediately filled, the ACLU followed the request with a lawsuit. In September 2005, U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein, citing America’s duty to set a democratic example while waging war for democracy, ordered the photographs released. The Bush administration’s appeal of Hellerstein’s decision was rejected by a panel of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last September, and its petition to appeal that decision to the entire court was similarly rebuffed.

On April 23 of this year, the Obama administration dispatched a letter to Hellerstein proclaiming that his administration had reached an agreement with the ACLU to release the photographs on May 28.

Barely two weeks before that self-imposed deadline — and barely three after announcing his intention to allow the alleged abuse photos to be released — Obama executed an abrupt about-face on the issue, deciding to resume the previous administration’s legal fight against their publication.

“The most direct consequence of releasing [the photographs], I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger,” Obama told reporters at the time of his reversal — a statement that, while stultifyingly obvious, has the benefit of appearing to demonstrate that this president can be taught that his actions as chief executive do have consequences.

The ACLU, which was predictably displeased at this change of heart by the man they perceived to be their president, didn’t have to reach far into its bag of epithets when determining how to respond to Obama’s decision.

“The reversal is another indication of a continuance of the Bush administration policies under the Obama administration,” said Amrit Singh, the attorney who argued the case for the organization. “President Obama’s promise of accountability is meaningless [and] this is inconsistent with his promise of transparency.”

“It’s absolutely essential that these photos be released,” Singh declared.

Whether or not there is in fact a “legal basis for withholding the photographs,” something Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, vehemently denied in the wake of the Obama reversal, is a matter for the administration and the Supreme Court to sort out in the coming weeks and months (responses to the administration’s petition for certiori are due by September 7).

Far from being “absolutely essential,” though, no tangible benefit to America or any of her citizens can possibly come from publishing years-old photographs of wrongdoing by a tiny number of American servicemen and servicewomen, all of whom have already been investigated and punished for their parts in those actions. The only good that could come from releasing these photographs would be felt by the extreme anti-American left, whose insatiable appetite for “war crime” pornography demands constant feedings of similar material.

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