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NEW YORK, May 14 2009 (IPS) - President Barack Obama’s decision Wednesday to object to the planned release of photos showing abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan has drawn quiet praise from the military and some in Congress – and outspoken scorn from human rights advocates, a number of legal scholars and religious leaders, and many on the left of his Democratic Party.
The release, originally scheduled for May 28, was ordered by a federal appeals court in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The Obama Justice Department initially indicated it had run out of legal options and would comply with the court order.
But Wednesday, the president made a 180-degree U-turn and ordered his lawyers to go back to court to appeal the decision. It is likely the case will eventually make its way to the Supreme Court.
At a press conference, Obama said that, “Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.”
However, he argued that “the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
Photographs released in 2006 of detainees being abused and humiliated at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq sparked widespread outrage and led to convictions for several prison guards and the ouster of the prison’s commander. The Pentagon shut down the prison in the wake of the scandal but it reopened under Iraqi control earlier this year.
It is being widely reported in the U.S. press that two factors played significant roles in the president’s turnabout.
One was objections from top military leaders, concerned that release of the images would inflame the Muslim world at the moment when the U.S. is planning to draw down its troops from Iraq and initiate a new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
The second factor is Obama’s scheduled Jun. 4 speech in Egypt; some in the administration were reportedly worried that the photos would blunt the president’s message of reconciliation with the Muslim community by providing fresh fodder for the anti-U.S. press in the Middle East.
Those said to be making this case to the White House include Robert Gates, the secretary of defence; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. David Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander; Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq; and Gen. David McKiernan, the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanstan.
Some influential members of Congress have also been urging Obama not to release the photos. They include Senator Lindsay Graham, a conservative Republican from South Carolina and a long-time military lawyer in the Air Force Reserve; and Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut. Graham is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Lieberman is chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
The two senators wrote to Obama on Mar. 7, “Releasing these old photographs of detainee treatment now will provide new fodder to al Qaeda’s propaganda and recruitment operations, undercut the progress you have made in our international relations, and endanger America’s military and diplomatic personnel throughout the world.”
Support for the Obama decision has also came from some veterans’ groups. David Rehbein, the national commander of the American Legion, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that nothing good can come from the release of the photographs.
“Other than self-flagellation by certain Americans, riots and future terrorist acts, what else do people expect will come from the release of these photographs?” he asked.
But this reasoning has failed to impress human rights groups and some religious leaders, many on the Left of the Democratic Party, and some spokesmen for the Right.
Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told IPS, “The Obama administration’s effort to suppress the photos is disappointing, particularly because President Obama has made a very public commitment to government transparency.”
“These photos would provide further evidence that abuse was systemic rather than aberrational and further evidence that abuse was the result of policy. The public has a right to see these photographs, and the Obama administration has no legal basis for withholding them,” he said.
Human Rights First argues that releasing the photos is vital. The group says it has set up a nonpartisan inquiry to “evaluate the full cost of abuses, look at how we got there, and come up with safeguards so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”
Amnesty International USA’s executive director, Larry Cox, said, “Today’s decision to hold the torture photos only points more firmly to the urgent need for an investigation to expose, prosecute and finally close the book on torture. The American people have been lied to, and government officials who authorised and justified abusive policies have been given a pass.”
Criticism of Obama’s decision also came from some conservatives.
Bruce Fein, chairman of the American Freedom Agenda and a senior Justice Department official during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, told IPS, “The more things change, the more they stay the same. To maintain that the more grisly the abuses or torture revealed by the photos, the greater the urgency of secrecy to prevent infuriating foreigners is a page from George Orwell’s 1984.”
Some religious leaders are also critical of Obama’s decision. Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, told IPS, “President Obama promised to make his administration ‘the most open and transparent in history.’ It is unfortunate that he appears to have chosen to backpedal on that promise on the issue of U.S.-sponsored torture.”
“Not only should he allow the release of these photos, but he should also move to establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and report on our use of torture since 9/11,” Killmer said.
Legal scholars are also expressing opposition to Obama’s decision. Typical is Prof. Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois law school.
He told IPS, “This tragic, misguided, and unprincipled reversal seems to be consistent with the fact that instead of getting a real ‘change’ on policies under the Obama administration, the American people are experiencing continuity across the board with those of the discredited and criminal Bush administration when it comes to international law, human rights, and U.S. constitutional law related thereto.”
A similar view comes from Marjorie Cohn, president of the National Lawyers Guild. She told IPS, “President Obama’s about-face on releasing the photos belies his commitment to transparency. Those who authorised the mistreatment depicted in the photos have not been punished. By refusing to make the photos public, the administration is withholding evidence that could be used to bring the real culprits to justice.”
Criticism of the Obama decision has also become viral among liberals in the blogosphere, For example, Cenk Uygur, writing in the left-leaning Huffington Post, said, “This is an unbelievable moment. Dick Cheney’s PR offensive over the last month actually worked. Barack Obama just crumbled and will follow Cheney’s command to not release the new set of detainee abuse pictures.”
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