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National security vs. public's right to know

Opinion: Obama's reversal on releasing photographs of Americans torturing prisoners is understandable.

U.S. President Barack Obama wearing a cap given to him by FBI director Robert Mueller during his visit to FBI headquarters in Washington Apr. 28, 2009. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

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.