Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

The American people are entitled to know what took place in U.S. detention centers. And it would be completely backwards to suppress images of government misconduct on the grounds that they are too powerful to be disclosed when it is often disclosure, accountability, and ensuing reforms that prevent misconduct from recurring. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Torture Secrets Are Coming

Once you've seen the Abu Ghraib photos, they're not easily forgotten.

The hooded man, the electrodes, the naked bodies piled upon each other, and the grinning soldier with a thumbs up. The images are the stuff of nightmares. They're also incontrovertible evidence that our government engaged in torture, and their publication sparked a national conversation that helped end the Bush administration's torture program.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration is still fighting to keep the full truth about torture – including photos the public hasn't yet seen – from the American people. But recently the courts and the Senate have been pushing back, resisting the government's claims that it can't reveal its torture secrets. As a result, those secrets may finally be dragged into the light.

The government is holding back as many as 2,100 never-released images from Abu Ghraib and other detention centers overseas. The ACLU first sued for their release 10 years ago, and in August, District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein ruled that the government must publish the photos unless it can defend withholding them on an individualized basis.

Tomorrow the government will appear in court and tell Judge Hellerstein and the ACLU what it plans to do.

The government based its suppression on a 2009 statute, enacted after the ACLU won the release of the images in the trial and appeals courts, that permits the secretary of defense to withhold an image for up to three years if the secretary certifies that its release would endanger Americans. In 2012, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta issued a half-page certification for the entire collection, of more than 2,000 images.

"Standing alone," Judge Hellerstein wrote in his August ruling, Mr. Panetta's certification is "insufficient." The government must prove that the secretary reviewed each photo by itself and "show why" the publication of each image risked national security.

The American people are entitled to know what took place in U.S. detention centers. And it would be completely backwards to suppress images of government misconduct on the grounds that they are too powerful to be disclosed when it is often disclosure, accountability, and ensuing reforms that prevent misconduct from recurring.

These principles aren't just about righting the historical record; they have practical applications to this day. Just this month, another federal judge ordered the unsealing of 32 videos of force feeding and cell extractions at Guantánamo Bay. These videos form part of the basis of Syrian detainee Abu Wa'el Dhiab's challenge to the force feeding practices the government inflicts on him today, practices that have been condemned internationally and which constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, possibly even torture.

Judge Gladys Kessler rejected the government's justifications for keeping the videos from the public as "unacceptably vague, speculative...or just plain implausible." Citing an earlier opinion by Judge Hellerstein in the ACLU case, Judge Kessler dismissed the government's argument that the videos could be used as propaganda by Al Qaeda. Last week, she granted the government's request for a 30-day reprieve while it decides whether to appeal her orders.

Outside of the courts, the Senate Intelligence Committee is also signaling that it, too, has had enough of the administration's efforts to conceal the truth about torture from the public. The committee voted six months ago to release the summary, findings, and conclusions of its landmark study on the CIA's torture program. Now the committee is pushing back against the administration's efforts to black out so much of the summary to make it unreadable. The ACLU has separately sued the CIA for the full Senate report, the CIA's response, and a contemporaneous internal review ordered by then CIA Director Leon Panetta. The CIA must "process" the summary, CIA response, and Panetta review by October 29, which means the agency will be required to justify any withholdings or produce the three reports.

With the courts and the Senate holding the line, we may soon know more than ever – not only about our past – but also about our present abusive practices. Only then can we truly move forward, and not backward.

© 2021 ACLU
 Marcellene Hearn

Marcellene Hearn

Marcellene Hearn is a senior staff attorney with the ACLU, working on the national security project. Follow her on Twitter: @MarcelleneH

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Omar Leads Charge Against Baby Formula Monopolies Amid US Shortage

Democrats urge the FTC to probe "any unfair or unsustainable practices, like deceptive marketing, price gouging, and stock buybacks, that may be weakening our nutritional formula supply."

Jessica Corbett ·

'Arbitrary, Racist, and Unfair': Judge Blocks Biden From Ending Title 42

"Only the coyotes profiteering off of people seeking protection have reason to celebrate this ill-reasoned ruling," said one migrant rights advocate.

Brett Wilkins ·

'This Is a War' for Democratic Party's Future, Says Sanders of AIPAC's Super PAC

"They are doing everything they can to destroy the progressive movement in this country," said the senator.

Julia Conley ·

Ginni Thomas Pressed Arizona Lawmakers to Reverse Biden's 2020 Win: Report

"Clarence Thomas' continued service on the Supreme Court is a scandalous and appalling breach of judicial ethics," said one observer. "He is implementing the exact same theories that his wife used to try to steal the 2020 election for Trump."

Brett Wilkins ·

Millions More Kids Going Hungry Since GOP, Manchin Killed Expanded Child Tax Credit

"Even brief disruptions in access to food can have lasting consequences," wrote the authors of a new analysis of worsening hunger among U.S. families.

Kenny Stancil ·

Common Dreams Logo