Out of the Torture Photo Box

Transparency can be achieved without a photo release, but only with full public account of torture investigations, writes Ken Gude.

The Obama administration should capture the positives of disclosing detainee abuse photographs while leaving behind the negatives of sensational images racing across the world. (AP/Ron Edmonds)
The Obama administration should capture the positives of disclosing detainee abuse photographs while leaving behind the negatives of sensational images racing across the world. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

President Barack Obama has created a difficult situation for himself on whether to release photographs of detainee abuse committed years ago under policies he has already banned. He first acted in the spirit of transparency and agreed to a court-ordered release of the images. But last month Obama reversed himself, falling back on the same national security arguments his predecessor so often relied upon to shield government misconduct from public exposure.

Releasing the photos is not an easy call. A legitimate argument does exist for preventing their release in order to protect American servicemen and women on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pervasive Bush administration secrecy, however, squandered any benefit of the doubt the government was due.

The Obama administration is now in a box, concerned about the implications for security of release but facing justifiable suspicions about its motives and the prospect that the photos could be released despite its objections. The administration can get out of this tough spot, however, even without releasing the photos, if it takes meaningful voluntary action to provide a public and comprehensive account of the investigations into torture and commits to regular congressional oversight of any future investigations.

Obama faces this dilemma because the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that 2,000 photographs taken from 2002 to 2004 and collected in the numerous military investigations into detainee abuse should be made public as part of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. Obama inherited this case from the Bush administration, and his Justice Department originally told the court it would comply with the ruling. This initial decision heightened the outcry at the reversal and landed the administration in its current position.

The case will now go to the Supreme Court and it will likely be months before it is decided. The Obama administration should take advantage of this delay to conclusively demonstrate that this is a good faith effort to protect our security and not just another cover up. The existence of so many television and internet-ready images is what makes the outcome of this case so potentially explosive. The photographs taken at Abu Ghraib made that detainee abuse story stick instead of the numerous other similar revelations coming out of Iraq. The realities of the situation—that Obama has banned abusive interrogations and that the abuse occurred more than five years ago—will likely be lost as news cycle after news cycle churns through photo after photo of horrific abuse.

Yet genuine positive results can come from disclosing photos. They will clearly expose the systemic nature of the abuse of detainees under the Bush administration. With thousands of images taken in every theater of operations, it will be impossible to argue that excesses were committed only by a few bad apples. And Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s chief of staff at the State Department, reported that “once the Abu Ghraib photographs were made public in the spring of 2004, the CIA, its contractors, and everyone else involved in administering ‘the Cheney methods of interrogation,’ simply shut down.”

The challenge for the Obama administration now is to convince Americans and the world that this is not a cover up. The administration must capture the positives of disclosure while leaving behind the negatives of sensational images racing across the world. And it is possible, as long as the administration takes voluntary actions to show that its concerns about the release of the photos relate only to the potential for exploitation by our enemies.

The prosecution of the perpetrators of some Abu Ghraib abuses is well known, but less understood are the other investigations that brought the photos together in the first place. The Obama administration should prepare a new comprehensive public report of all government investigations into allegations of detainee abuse.

This report should detail each allegation and the result of the investigation with particular emphasis on the rate of abuse allegations and whether they declined after the Detainee Treatment Act was passed in 2005. Upon the report’s release, the president should bring together the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, the secretary of defense, and the director of national intelligence to answer any and all questions related to the investigations of detainee abuse.

Meaningful congressional oversight is also important to restore credibility to the U.S. government on issues related to secrecy and national security. The Obama administration is serious about prohibiting torture and other detainee abuse, and it should commit to full disclosure of any allegations of abuse on its watch. This first collection of information should form the basis of an annual report to Congress from the secretary of defense and the director of national intelligence outlining that year’s investigations and any resulting punishment.

The United States is in a deep hole regarding torture and abuse of detainees, and it has been surprising to see President Obama get out his shovel and dig a little deeper. He may be right on the merits to oppose release of these detainee abuse photos, but belief in his good faith is not sufficient to allay suspicion of the U.S. government after the disaster of the Bush years. The Obama administration must act to win back America’s credibility before the Supreme Court decides the case.

Ken Gude is the Associate Director of the International Rights and Responsibility Program at the Center for American Progress.

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Ken Gude

Senior Fellow