WASHINGTON - The Obama administration agreed late Thursday to release dozens of photographs depicting alleged abuse by U.S. personnel during the Bush administration of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At least 44 pictures will be released by May 28 -- making public for the first time images of what the military investigated as abuse that took place at facilities other than the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Defense Department officials would not say exactly what is contained in the photos, but said they are concerned that the release could incite a backlash in the Middle East.
The photos, taken from military criminal investigations of abuse, are apparently not as shocking as the photographs from the Abu Ghraib investigation that became a lasting symbol of U.S. mistakes in Iraq. But some show military service members intimidating or threatening detainees by pointing weapons at them. Military officers have been court martialed for threatening detainees at gunpoint.
"This will constitute visual proof that, unlike the Bush administration's claim, the abuse was not confined to Abu Ghraib and was not aberrational," said Amrit Singh, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained the agreement as part of a long-running legal battle for documents related to Bush-era anti-terror policies.
The photo release decision comes as President Barack Obama is already trying to quell a drive to investigate Bush-era anti-terror practices. But now the photos and a series of other possible disclosures stemming from the ACLU lawsuit threatens to fuel the already explosive controversy.
Additional disclosures to be considered in the coming weeks include transcripts of detainee interrogations by the CIA, a CIA inspector general's report that has been kept mostly secret, and background materials of a Justice Department internal investigation into prisoner abuse.
In each instance, Obama and his administration are being forced to decide whether to release material entirely, disclose it with redactions or follow the lead of the Bush administration and fight in court to keep the material classified.
Last week, Obama opted to demand relatively few redactions when his administration released Justice Department memos detailing the Bush administration's justifications and strategies for harsh interrogations.
But those disclosures created a problem for the president, prompting Democratic lawmakers and interest groups to demand that Congress investigate the Bush-era practices and possibly prosecute officials of the prior administration.
With Obama trying to navigate ambitious health, tax and environment legislation through Congress, the White House fears that such an investigation could become a highly partisan distraction ¿ and Obama has for that reason already rejected the idea of a 9/11 Commission-style review of Bush's anti-terror policies, according to an official.
Now, with the president must consider the release of new materials that could be inflammatory and heighten the already combustible mix of political pressures he faces. While the liberal base that elected him wants wide disclosure and an investigation of Bush practices, pursuing that course would likely alienate the intelligence and military communities that are crucial to Obama's success as president.
Obama tried to walk that rhetorical line last week, heeding liberals' calls to release the torture memos but appearing to argue against further investigation or prosecution by saying that " "this is a time for reflection, not retribution."
Instead, he managed to anger both constituencies.
"My sense is the president was trying to please a lot of audiences at one time and that over the last (week) he has totally failed to put the mind of the intelligence community at ease," said Mark Lowenthal, a former senior adviser to CIA Director George J. Tenet. "He is going to end up with a national clandestine service that will not be willing to do anything because they feel he will not be there for them when they need him."