A federal judge has given the Obama administration less than two additional months to make its case why photos of abuse and torture by U.S. military forces against detainees captured following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan should not be released to the public.
As The Guardian's Spencer Ackerman reports, Judge Alvin Hellerstein on Tuesday told government lawyers they must present a written argument for keeping more than 2,100 photographs secret even as many of them are thought to show graphic examples of mistreatment worse even than that shown in the infamous photos that depicted torture of prisoners in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in late 2003.
According to Ackerman:
At issue is the publication of as many as 2,100 photographs of detainee abuse, although the government continues not to confirm the precise number. Said to be even more disturbing than the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs that sparked a global furor in 2004, the imagery is the subject of a transparency lawsuit that both the Bush and Obama administrations, backed by the US Congress, have strenuously resisted.
In 2009, US president Barack Obama reversed his position on the photographs’ release and contended they would “further inflame anti-American opinion and … put our troops in greater danger”. That year, Congress passed a law, the Protected National Security Documents Act, intended to aid the government in keeping the images from the public. Two secretaries of defense, Robert Gates in 2009 and Leon Panetta in 2012, have issued assertions that US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq would be placed at risk by the disclosure.
But in August, Hellerstein said the government’s declaration was overbroad. Some of the photographs, which he said on Tuesday he had seen behind closed doors, “are relatively innocuous while others need more serious consideration”, Hellerstein said in August.
Disclosure, sought by the American Civil Liberties Union since 2004, will not come this year. Hellerstein scheduled a hearing to discuss the upcoming government declaration for 23 January.
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Responding to that latest developments, ACLU attorney Marcellene Hearn said, "It’s disappointing that the government continues to fight to keep these photographs from the public."
She added, "The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened in our detention centers abroad. Yet the government is suppressing as many as 2,100 photographs of detainee abuse in Iraq and elsewhere. We will continue to press for the release of the photos in the courts."
President Obama has faced intense criticism throughout his two terms for refusing to hold Bush officials accountable for the torture that took place in the aftermath of 9/11 and during the occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Reporting over the weeked by the New York Times revealed that the White House is now considering reaffirming his predecessor's position that the "ban on cruel treatment" doesn't apply when the United States is operating overseas.
On Tuesday, the ACLU released an interactive infographic showing the top architects of the U.S. torture program under President Bush, none of whom have ever been held accountable for the abuse authorized by the program. In a blog post accompanying the new graphic, Jamil Dakwar, director of the group's Human Rights Program, indicated that the Obama administration's refusal to shine a light on the torture has become a stain on his own record and said that White House backing of the "fabricated" torture loophole would do "terrible damage to one of the world's most important human rights instruments." He continued:
Simply put, the ban against torture and ill-treatment is universal and applies everywhere the U.S. government exercises, directly or indirectly, de facto or de jure control over people in detention. We echo the call of the New York Times editorial board to "close the overseas torture loophole."
The United Nations will review American compliance with the convention in November. Ahead of the review, the ACLU has submitted a report to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, highlighting the areas in which the U.S. government has failed to uphold its human rights obligations under the convention.
In the meanwhile, we continue to wait for the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA torture program. The summary of the comprehensive report, the product of years of work, is being held up by negotiations over the executive branch's excessive redactions, no doubt attempts to keep secret some of the most damning findings and evidence of the terrible crimes our country committed.