Obama Tries to Block Release of Detainee Photos

Published on
by
The New York Times

Obama Tries to Block Release of Detainee Photos

by
Jeff Zeleny

President Obama is seeking to block the release of photographs
depicting American military personnel abusing captives in Iraq and
Afghanistan, an administration official said Wednesday.

The president's decision marks a sharp reversal from a decision made last month by the Pentagon,
which reached a deal with the American Civil Liberties Union to release
photographs showing incidents at Abu Gharib and a half-dozen other
prisons.

"Last week, the president met with his legal team and told them that
he did not feel comfortable with the release of the D.O.D. photos
because he believes their release would endanger our troops," said the
official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And because he believes
that the national security implications of such a release have not been
fully presented to the court."

Mr. Obama advised his top military commanders about his decision in
a meeting on Tuesday at the White House. Several military officials had
argued against the immediate release of the photographs, saying such
action could harm American troops in the field.

"The president strongly believes that the release of these photos,
particularly at this time, would only serve the purpose of inflaming
the theaters of war, jeopardizing US forces," the official said, "and
making our job more difficult in places like Iraq and Afghanistan."

"Odierno and McKiernan and Petraeus have all voiced real concern
about this," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.
"Particularly in Afghanistan, this is the last thing they need." Mr.
Morrell said. Defense secretary Robert M. Gates shared the concerns of
his commanders about the impact of the photo release on the troops and
the battlefield and that Mr. Gates and President Obama had had a
"multitude of conversations" on the issue.

The Pentagon's decision to release the pictures came after the
A.C.L.U. prevailed at the Federal District Court level and before a
panel of the Second Circuit. The photographs were set to be released on
May 28. But as that date approached, a growing sense of unease among
military officials was expressed to the White House.

Many also recalled the Abu Ghraib photographs, showing prisoners
naked or in degrading positions, sometimes with Americans posing smugly
nearby, caused an uproar in the Arab world and concerns within the
military that the actions of a relatively few service members had
tainted the entire forces.

In this more recent case, the A.C.L.U. argued that disclosing the
pictures was "critical for helping the public understand the scope and
scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials
accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse," said Amrit
Singh, who argued the case on behalf of the group before the United
States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan.

A senior administration official said that the president met last
week with his legal team and reached the conclusion that the interests
of the military and the U.S. government would not be served by
releasing the photos.

"The president would be the last to excuse the actions depicted in
these photos," the administration official said. "That is why the
Department of Defense investigated these cases, and why individuals
have been punished through prison sentences, discharges, and a range of
other punitive measures."

The next step was not immediately clear. White House officials said
a court filing was due on Wednesday, which would outline the
administration's legal approach.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, is set to take
questions about the photographs during the press briefing that is
scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

During the court case, defense officials had fought the release of
the photographs, connected with investigations between 2003 and 2006,
on the grounds that the release could endanger American military
personnel overseas and that the privacy of detainees would be violated.
But the Second Circuit, in upholding a lower court ruling, said the
public interest involved in release of the pictures outweighed a vague,
speculative fear of danger to the American military or violation of the
detainees' privacy.

Earlier reports indicated that at least some of the new pictures
show detainees being intimidated by American soldiers, sometimes at
gunpoint, but A.C.L.U. officials said last month it was unclear what
scenes were captured. At the lower court phase, a federal prosecutor
said the Pentagon had agreed to release 44 photographs involved in the
case, plus "a substantial number of other images" gathered by Army
investigators.

Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker contributed to this post.

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