The nightmarish images from Abu Ghraib are still seared into the American consciousness: piles of naked bodies, detainees being led on leashes and U.S. soldiers giving a thumbs-up as it all happens. But now, a decade after they were made public, the U.S. government is trying to conceal as many as 2,100 additional photographs that are said to be even more disturbing.
A federal judge ruled in August that the Obama administration had to decide by October 21 whether it would release the images showing U.S. military personnel torturing detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq or defend its case, photograph by photograph, in order to continue withholding them. The administration said Tuesday that it intended to defend keeping the images secret and would supplement the record with its reasons.
This saga began back in 2004 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) first sued for the images’ release. Though it was ultimately successful in the trial and appeals courts, Obama said that he feared a release would “further inflame American opinion and...put our troops in greater danger,” and blocked it from happening.
In 2009, Congress debated about whether these photos should be disclosed. During the debate, and since then, some of the images have been classified as everything from “relatively innocuous” and “[needed] more serious consideration” to “even more gruesome than the last.” Some of the images have been revealed to be part of autopsy investigations conducted by Army medical examiners.
Congress ultimately enacted a statute in 2009 that allows the secretary of defense to keep an image concealed for up to three years if its release would endanger Americans. Then secretary of defense Robert Gates opted to keep all 2,000-plus images concealed in 2009, and Leon Panetta decided to do the same in 2012, with a blanket assertion that their release would put troops at risk.
But Judge Alvin Hellerstein decided in August that this lump concealment was insufficient to support withholding the images. He ruled that if the government wanted to keep the images classified for the remainder of the three-year allotment, it would have to review each photograph and demonstrate why its release would put national security at risk. The administration has until December 12 to submit its reasoning to the court. Another hearing is set for January 20, when Hellerstein will review the submission and ultimately make a decision.
With around 1,600 U.S. troops in Iraq to fight the Islamic State, the terrorist group commonly known as ISIS, the stakes are certainly raised. With the U.S. military potentially in harm’s way, the government has a new argument for maintaining the secrecy. But civil liberties advocates, like those at the ACLU, say there are many reasons to release the photos.
“One of the reasons we’ve been fighting for so long for these photographs is because the official narrative following the disclosure of the Abu Ghraib photos was that those abuses were the result of a few bad apples,” says Alex Abdo, an ACLU staff attorney working on the case since 2005.
“These photographs come from at least seven different detention facilities throughout Afghanistan and Iraq.... We think this would once and for all end the myth that the abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib was an aberration,” he says. “It was essentially official policy. It was widespread at different facilities under different commanders.”
Releasing the images not only ensures the righting of the historical record; it also has huge implications for other cases, victims of torture and future U.S. policy.
One of government’s lines of argument for keeping the photos from the public is that they may be used as propaganda against the U.S. But Abdo says that “it’s pretty well established in our constitutional right to free speech that we don’t give hecklers a veto on what the public can see, and we likewise don’t give terrorists a veto on what the public is entitled to learn about government misconduct.”
Abdo calls the government’s line of reasoning “truly perverse.” He says the government is essentially arguing that because the photos and videos so powerfully document official abuse, the government has greater authority to keep it a secret, which is “exactly backwards.” He argues that this argument is dangerous and is being applied in other contexts.
This month, another federal judge ordered the release of 32 withheld videos of force feeding and cell extractions at Guantanamo Bay. Syrian detainee Abu Wa’el Dhiab’s case for ending force feeding, a practice that has been condemned internationally, would benefit from their release. But the government argued that keeping the tapes secret was essential to protect national security.
U.S. concealment of information regarding torture is not limited to visuals. Six months ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to release its summary of the CIA’s torture program. But now the administration wants to heavily redact sections, which the committee is fighting. Sections of the report are expected to be released as soon as October 29.