After years of fighting a court order, the Pentagon on Friday released nearly 200 pictures related to U.S. military abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photographs belong to a larger collection of as many as 2,100 images taken between September 11, 2001, and January 22, 2009, and are part of various investigations into military detainee abuse. Some of the images are reported to be even more disturbing than the notorious ones from Abu Ghraib, but they remain classified.
The pictures, which the Pentagon posted in its online reading room, are best characterized as “benign,” a Defense Department spokesman tells Newsweek. The images, some of which are partially redacted to conceal identities, show alleged injuries sustained by detainees through harsh treatment while in U.S. military custody.
The images that remain classified allegedly show scenes like a female soldier pretending to sodomize a naked prisoner with a broom and troops pointing guns at detainees as they lie with their hands tied and with hoods over their heads.
In reaction to the photos’ release, Myles B. Caggins III, spokesman for the National Security Council, tells Newsweek the photos belong to a bygone era in American history: “The president has made very clear that the United States will ensure the safe, lawful, and humane treatment of individuals in U.S. custody in the context of armed conflicts, consistent with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions.”
According to a Defense Department spokesman, the photos the Pentagon released pertain to investigations that found approximately 14 substantiated allegations and 42 unsubstantiated ones.
"From those cases with substantiated allegations," the Defense Department spokesman says, "65 service members received some form of disciplinary action. The disciplinary actions ranged from letters of reprimand to life imprisonment, and of the 65 who received disciplinary action, 26 were convicted at courts-martial."
The photo dump comes months after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter invoked his authority under a 2009 law, allowing him to conceal a photo for up to three years if its release could potentially endanger American lives. He decided to conceal all of the photos, except for the batch of approximately 200, suggesting their release no longer poses a security risk. The small declassification also follows a protracted legal battle over making the entire collection public.
The case began in 2004 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued for the release of images relating to the treatment of detainees held by the U.S. abroad. A handful of pictures from Abu Ghraib prison leaked to the media later that year, depicting piles of naked bodies, detainees being led on leashes and U.S. soldiers giving a thumbs-up as it all happened.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein of New York first ordered the government to release the existing photographs in 2005. But as conditions in Iraq deteriorated and congressional fears over national security mounted, the images remained classified. Though the Justice Department had agreed to release the images, President Barack Obama shifted course in 2009, saying he feared the photos would “further inflame American opinion and...put our troops in greater danger.”
That year, Congress voted to give the secretary of defense the ability to sign a certification that would allow him to keep the pictures concealed, so long as the office believed making them public could put Americans in harm’s way. Former Pentagon Chief Robert Gates swiftly capitalized on this newly afforded power, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta followed suit in 2012, signing a blanket certification to keep the entire collection under wraps.
Yet the ACLU kept fighting for the photos' release. “[The photographs] refute the narrative embraced by the Bush administration and later President Obama, that military abuse was an aberration,” argues Alex Abdo, an ACLU staff attorney who adds that the pictures were taken at at least seven different detention facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
Abdo is hopeful that the government will one day release the additional images, for reasons beyond just correcting the historical record. “When President Obama was inaugurated he said that his administration would be the most transparent in our nation’s history,” says Abdo. “I think a true measure of governmental transparency is the extent to which it acknowledges its own wrongs, the extent to which it accounts for its own misconduct. And hiding powerful evidence of abuse doesn’t pass that test.”
But the government’s submissions to the court throughout the legal battle suggest a wider release isn’t coming anytime soon. In December 2014, the U.S. submitted testimony from Rear Admiral Sinclair M. Harris, vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who argued that “the danger associated with release of these photographs is heightened now.” He pointed to the diminished number of troops remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recent rise of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which he said could use the imagery to encourage new membership and incite violence.
Abdo, the ACLU attorney disagrees. “After the Charlie Hebdo attacks…our government officials were fairly unanimous in their view that the threat of violence is not a reason to limit the discourse in our country and the same principle should apply here,” he maintains. “These are the best evidence that we have of grave governmental misconduct and they shouldn’t be withheld because someone somewhere might find them offensive. The government hasn’t pointed to any specific or imminent threat of violence,” Abdo continues. “And absent that, this information should be public.”
Addressing the government’s concerns, Judge Hellerstein conceded last year that the U.S. has never confronted an enemy like ISIS before. But he ultimately decided that conditions are similar to when he originally ruled for the images to be released in 2005.
As the Pentagon fought the images’ declassification last year, the administration backed releasing the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA’s rendition program. Obama argued that there would never be a “perfect time” to release the report, which is heavily redacted, but vividly describes the CIA’s brutal treatment of detainees. When it comes to the images, however, the Pentagon holds a different view. Rear Admiral Harris stated last year that “this risk is much greater with respect to the photographs than mere written descriptions.”
The ACLU intends to continue challenging the government’s suppression of the remaining 1,800 images.