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Obama Moves to Block Release of Detainee Abuse Photos

May 13, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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President Obama has decided to bar the release of photos showing U.S. personnel mistreating detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan amid concerns the backlash could jeopardize troops abroad. New York Times White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny explains the move.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama today announced his opposition to releasing more photos of U.S. troops mistreating Iraqi and Afghan prisoners. He said government lawyers will argue it poses a threat to national security.

The photographs were taken before 2004. A federal appeals court ordered them made public, and the administration initially said it would comply. But today at the White House, Mr. Obama explained his change of heart. He said the pictures are not that sensational and their release will do no good.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: 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. Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.

JIM LEHRER: The American Civil Liberties Union brought the lawsuit that seeks publication of the photos. The group condemned today’s announcement. An ACLU attorney said, “The decision to not release the photographs makes a mockery of President Obama’s promise of transparency and accountability.”

For more on our lead story, Jeff Zeleny, White House correspondent for the New York Times, is with us.

Jeff, welcome.

JEFF ZELENY, New York Times: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: First, how many photographs are there?

JEFF ZELENY: We’re talking about hundreds of photographs here. And interestingly, in the last two weeks, we’re told that President Obama has looked at many of these photographs, not all of them, but a wide sampling of them, and that’s how he reached his decision. He gave us a little bit of a window into that this evening.

JIM LEHRER: Well, first of all — let me continue — what’s the word on what are actually on these photographs?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, he says they’re not particularly sensational. Some Pentagon officials and some other folks who have seen them say, you know, they are pretty graphic and they would inflame and perhaps hurt the American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, specifically, I have not seen the photographs. I don’t know what’s on them. But we’re told that they are pretty sensational. And I’m guessing that that’s probably true or they wouldn’t be so worried about releasing them.

Contents of the photographs

Jeff Zeleny
New York Times
One source I talked to said that there was perhaps a cross that was carved in, in someone's hair. So there are very demeaning pictures here.

JIM LEHRER: The speculation or at least the assumption is that they're similar to those that came from Abu Ghraib, the prison in Iraq, correct, where people were down on their hands and knees with things around -- with ropes around their necks and that kind of thing, right?

JEFF ZELENY: Exactly, and people were depicted in very demeaning ways. One source I talked to said that there was perhaps a cross that was carved in, in someone's hair. So there are very demeaning pictures here.

And the problem here is that you really can't put a timestamp on these pictures. As you said, they were taken before 2004, but if these pictures would have been released, they, of course, would spread like wildfire and they would look like they were done yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: Who took the pictures? Do we know?

JEFF ZELENY: I mean, the people who took the pictures are -- at least according to the administration -- are people, soldiers who have already been prosecuted or are being prosecuted for these cases already. But specifically who took these, that was not discussed today at the White House.

JIM LEHRER: And they have been in possession of the Pentagon or been -- they've been in possession of the United States military, right?

JEFF ZELENY: That's correct.

Argument to withhold photos

Jeff Zeleny
New York Times
[The President] looked at these photographs, and yesterday informed some of those commanders that he had changed his mind and would ask the court to argue against the release of these.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Now, what was the argument and who made it to President Obama not to release these things or to change his position on this?

JEFF ZELENY: This is one of those classic cases where things sort of rise from the bottom up. And the concern was first voiced in the military at the Pentagon, and commanders on the ground expressed their concern to the defense secretary, to Secretary Gates, and said, "Look, we think this will be a major problem for U.S. troops who are now just beginning to go into Afghanistan in a much larger way and in starting to pull out of Iraq."

So it was expressed through those channels to the White House. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates conveyed this to the president. And, really, over the last two, two-and-a-half weeks this has been discussed in the White House.

The president borrowed into this, we're told, looked at these photographs, and yesterday informed some of those commanders that he had changed his mind and would ask the court to argue against the release of these.

But this is not a done deal, necessarily. This will probably be decided by the Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. We'll get back to that in a minute. But the argument that this would inflame -- who would be inflamed, I mean, the people that are on the ground, civilians, Afghan civilians, Iraqi civilians, Taliban? Who would be brought to danger, would bring the danger against American troops if these photographs were released, according to the argument that the president heard?

JEFF ZELENY: According to the argument, perhaps all of the above. But they're mainly -- the big worry here is Afghanistan. This is the new front in this war, and this would simply create an inhospitable environment. It would really begin things the wrong way as the new strategy is going forward.

So it is civilians, of course, but the Taliban, as well, and other terrorist groups. So it's all of the above, and they really know that, once these photos were released -- at least that was their fear -- that this would spread and would, of course, be broadcast in media there and it would simply give another reason to oppose and to stand against what American troops are trying to do there.

JIM LEHRER: Which, of course, is what happened when the Abu Ghraib photographs were released.


Court proceedings

Jeff Zeleny
New York Times
The ACLU was pretty much alone on this today in their very sharp criticism of President Obama.

JIM LEHRER: And they're afraid of a repeat of this. All right, now, as you say, this is now in the courts. Where exactly is it in the courts? And what is the process that the president and his lawyers are now participating in?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, the process right now, the president has basically asked the White House counsel's office to review this and step in with what he suggests through his aides will be a better argument.

So the Department of Justice and the White House counsel's office will handle this. They have until June 8th, I believe it is, to file paperwork in this case. And it could ultimately -- probably will end up in the Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: It's in a federal appeals court now, correct?

JEFF ZELENY: It is. It is.

JIM LEHRER: And then it could go to the U.S. -- do we know when a decision will be made, when the -- is there a timetable for resolving this?

JEFF ZELENY: Well, these photographs were supposed to be released, were scheduled to be released on May 28th. So today was the deadline for responding, so June 8th is the next court deadline.

But in terms of when this would go to the court, you know, almost certainly not this term. We're talking about the next term, of course, would be October, is my guess.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the argument against the president's position -- the argument for releasing them has been made by the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. In a nutshell, what is their argument?

JEFF ZELENY: In a nutshell, their argument is, look, you were elected on the promise of transparency. You were elected on the pledge of open government and to improving America's image around the world. This would seem to fly in the face of that. They believe that transparency and to putting these out there will once and for all sort of show the bad acts that were committed there.

Interestingly, though, there wasn't that many groups or certainly anyone on the Hill that I heard of today sort of joining the ACLU on this. So it will be interesting to see how the groups on the left react to this, but the ACLU was pretty much alone on this today in their very sharp criticism of President Obama.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much.

JEFF ZELENY: Thank you.