National security vs. public's right to know

It might seem inconsistent to some that President Barack Obama would have no trouble releasing the Bush-era torture memos, infuriating the right, only to balk and reverse himself on releasing photographs of Americans torturing their prisoners, infuriating the left.

Certainly the American Civil Liberties Union thinks so. It was its lawsuit, upheld by the courts, that led to the announced release of photos, only to be later told by the Justice Department that it would appeal the ruling because of “ further reflections at the highest levels of government” — i.e. the president.

But there is truth to the old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words. I found when I was an editor that political cartoons could arouse passions among readers that I could only hope for with words. That observation was borne out when the Danish cartoons mocking Muhammad caused riots throughout much of the Muslim world in a way that no Danish editorial could have done. And a description of what happened in a news story was never as disturbing to people as the photograph.

So when his generals, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, informed him that American troops could be put in danger by the release of inflammatory photographs, Obama may have felt he had little choice. And I have no doubt that the Muslim world would have been re-inflamed, as it was by the first photos of Abu Ghraib in 2004. When I visited Iraq a year later, I found Iraqis still talking about how much Abu Ghraib had hurt America’s image — not that Iraqis were overly surprised that Americans used torture, but because we preached high-flown ideals of democracy as a justification for invading the country. America was exposed as the mother of all hypocrites.

Yet the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that the public interest trumped the speculative fear of danger to soldiers when it came to releasing the photographs. The Pentagon also used the argument that the photos violated the privacy of the detainees, which pushes hypocrisy to new heights given what Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon had permitted its soldiers to do in the way of violating the privacy of detainees in the first place. When you strip prisoners naked and lead them around the prison on a dog’s leash, their privacy has already been obliterated.

Mercifully, Obama did not use that argument when he announced that the new atrocity photographs would not be released after all. He kept his arguments to what the photographs might mean for national security.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said the administration was “covering up, not only for the Bush White House but for itself.” The president said: “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.”

I have trouble with both those statements. The Obama administration is hardly covering up for itself when it refuses to release photographs taken on the Bush administration’s watch. I have seen no hint that any of the photos were taken since Obama came to power.

But Obama’s claim that torture was carried out by only a small number of individuals — just a few rotten apples, as the Bush administration put it — seems patently untrue. The torture memos show that the decision to use torture was taken by higher-ups in Washington during the Bush administration, not by a few bad sergeants at Abu Ghraib. No one at a high level has been held to account for these atrocities. And the new photos were taken not at Abu Ghraib only, but at many other prisons showing a pattern of abuse.

It would not be in the interests of the United States to have an incoming administration start bringing criminal charges against members of the outgoing administration. Although it infuriated some people at the time, I believe that Gerald Ford was right to pardon Richard Nixon even though Nixon had never gone to trial for any abuses of power. But that didn’t mean we were never to know what Nixon did.

Holding back photographs doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t follow the torture trail to find out exactly what happened, and who approved of what, if only to prevent it happening the next time the nation is scared. And it was clearly not just the work of a few, as Obama is now saying.

I can understand releasing the torture memos while holding back the photographic evidence, and I could understand if Obama chose to pardon officials in the Bush administration for anything they may have done. Whatever their sins, they thought that what they were doing was necessary to protect the country.

But that doesn’t mean that the country doesn’t need to know exactly what they did in the name of national security. And that quest should not be abandoned in the name of national security.

More by HDS Greenway:

Still lost in Afghanistan?

Of borders and other divisions

The War Hotels: Introduction