Obama to release photos of abuse

Here we go again.  The US will release dozens of pictures depicting prisoner abuse by the American military and intelligence agents after the Obama administration dropped an appeal to block a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU.  Will these pictures have the same demoralizing effect on both the troops and the CIA?

In a letter from the Justice Department to a federal judge yesterday, the Obama administration announced that the Pentagon would turn over to the American Civil Liberties Union 44 photographs showing detainee abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq during the Bush administration.

The photographs are part of a 2003 Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU for all information relating to the treatment of detainees — the same battle that led, last week, to President Obama’s decision to release memos from the Bush Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel providing legal justifications for harsh interrogation methods that human rights groups call torture.

Courts had ruled against the Bush administration’s attempts to keep the photographs from public view. ACLU attorney Amrit Singh tells ABC News that “the fact that the Obama administration opted not to seek further review is a sign that it is committed to more transparency.”

In 2004, the release of the pictures from Abu Ghraib overwhelmed the limited context of the abuse at that prison, which involved a handful of soldiers that had already come under investigation from the Pentagon for their abusive treatment of prisoners.  The release of those images created a firestorm of vituperation against the American military around the world, calls for immediate firings and purges, even though the military had already acted to clean up the problem.  The damage done to the Army’s reputation in particular has never been undone.

Small wonder the intelligence community has erupted in anger over this and the previous release of OLC memos:

Calling the ACLU push to release the photographs “prurient” and “reprehensible,” Dr. Mark M. Lowenthal, former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production, tells ABC News that the Obama administration should have taken the case all the way to the Supreme Court. …

Lowenthal said the president’s moves in the last week have left many in the CIA dispirited, based on “the undercurrent I’ve been getting from colleagues still in the building, or colleagues who have left not that long ago.”

“We ask these people to do extremely dangerous things, things they’ve been ordered to do by legal authorities, with the understanding that they will get top cover if something goes wrong,” Lowenthal says. “They don’t believe they have that cover anymore.” Releasing the photographs “will make it much worse,” he said.

There is a natural tension in a free republic between transparency and national security, especially in wartime. If abuses occur, we need to make sure that the crimes get investigated and punished appropriately.  Unfortunately, there has never been a war where abuses did not occur.  Even in World War II, the war hailed even by most pacifists as an example of a true good vs evil conflict, Allied troops shot prisoners and committed war crimes, some of which got attention and reaction, and some of which did not.

Those atrocities did not represent Allied troop behavior then, and a few examples of abuse do not reflect the efforts of American troops and intelligence agents now.  Would we have published the pictures of such atrocities while in combat against the enemy then, and ruined the reputation of brave men and women fighting fascism and totalitarianism?  Not a chance.  And when we did it in 2004, the end result was to besmirch the entire military and chain of command, because photos carry no sense of context and are much more inflammatory than informative.

Now we get to go through it all over again, and the context of the photos will likely get the same scant coverage.  Did the abuse shown result in investigations?  Disciplinary action?  Will the press cover it even if the US acted against the alleged perpetrators?  Based on the quality of reporting in 2004, that seems doubtful.