WASHINGTON - The United States Supreme Court will hear the U.S. government's appeal on a lower court ruling requiring the release of photos showing the abuse of prisoners held in overseas facilities.
The government is appealing a 2008 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit which ruled that the government must release the photos to comply with an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.
The Obama Administration initially agreed to release the photos - and decided not to appeal the courts decision - but they reversed their position on May 28 when the government asked the appeals court to recall its order for the photos release since an appeal was to be filed in the Supreme Court.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and recalled its order that the photos be released.
"These photos are a crucial part of the historical record, and the appeals court was right to find that they should be released," said Director of the ACLU National Security Project Jameel Jaffer. "It's disappointing that the Obama Administration which has rightly acknowledged the connection between transparency and accountability is continuing to argue that these photographs should be suppressed."
Human rights groups were enthusiastic about Obama's commitment in his first week in office to create "an unprecedented level of openness in government" and "establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration."
But the administration has blocked lawsuits related to its usage of "extraordinary renditions" and warrantless wiretapping on the basis that "state secrets" could be put in danger were the lawsuits to move forward.
While previous lawsuits have been successfully blocked, ACLU attorneys are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree with the appeals court decision to release the photos.
"The appeals court soundly rejected all of the government's arguments for withholding the photos, and it's unfortunate that the government has chosen to contest that decision," said ACLU staff attorney Amrit Singh. "These photos would provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Gharib," Singh said. "As disturbing as the photos may be, it is critical that the American people know the full truth about the abuse that occurred in their name."
In a Jul. 29 letter to Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) Obama outlined that he would work with Congress to pass legislation that would classify photographic or video evidence of U.S. soldiers committing acts of prisoner abuse against detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The administration has suggested that the release of such photos could put in danger the lives of individuals working on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the ACLU and other proponents of releasing the photos have agreed with the courts earlier decision that the identity of all individuals pictured in the photos should be obscured.
Congress will look at the proposed legislation when they return from their summer break in September, but Obama may find opposition from within his own party the most difficult obstacle.
"The U.S. should not restrict access to intelligence solely to prevent information that might prove politically embarrassing from becoming public, when it poses no legitimate national security threat. This is especially the case when the information in question bears on an allegation as deeply troubling as torture," Representative Bill Delahunt (D-MA) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder. "I suggest that the U.S. itself should make that information public, or at least remove our objection to its release. Justice and democratic accountability overwhelmingly support the release of this information."
Even as the Obama Administration works to classify or prevent the release of the torture photos, the Chicago Tribune reported yesterday that Attorney General Eric Holder will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that the CIA participated in torturing detainees and - in some cases - the torture resulted in death.
The investigation will likely focus on whether lower-level CIA officials overstepped their authority in using interrogation techniques which went beyond the approved set of procedures set forth in Bush Administration memos.