POLITICS
05/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Torture Photos Release Delayed By Obama (UPDATED)

UPDATE: The White House plans to announce that Obama is "seeking to delay release of 'torture photos' depicting detainee abuse, reversing course.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs is going to make the announcement at his afternoon briefing.

Gibbs told reporters yesterday that President Obama has "great concern" about the impact that releasing the photos would have on soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote Obama last week to urge him to fight the release of the photos.

"The release of these old photographs of past behavior that has now been clearly prohibited can serve no public good, but will empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country's image, and endanger our men and women in uniform," they wrote.

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The Obama administration will release more photos of Bush era prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan to satisfy demands from an ACLU Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, according to a Thursday ACLU press release. Here is the release:

Photos Depict Abuse Of Prisoners By U.S. Personnel In Iraq And Afghanistan

NEW YORK - In a letter addressed to a federal court today, the Department of Defense announced that it will make public by May 28 a "substantial number" of photos depicting the abuse of prisoners by U.S. personnel. The photos, which are being released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2004, include images from prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan at locations other than Abu Ghraib.

"These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib," said Amrit Singh, staff attorney with the ACLU. "Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse."

The letter follows a September 2008 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit requiring disclosure of the photos and the court's subsequent refusal in March 2009 to rehear the case. The Defense Department has indicated that it will not ask the Supreme Court to review the Second Circuit's ruling.

Since the ACLU's FOIA request in 2003, the Bush administration had refused to disclose these images by attempting to radically expand the exemptions allowed under the FOIA for withholding records. The administration claimed that the public disclosure of such evidence would generate outrage and would violate U.S. obligations towards detainees under the Geneva Conventions.

However, a three judge panel of the appeals court in September 2008 rejected the Bush administration's attempt to use exemptions to the FOIA as "an all-purpose damper on global controversy" and recognized the "significant public interest in the disclosure of these photographs" in light of government misconduct. The court also recognized that releasing the photographs is likely to prevent "further abuse of prisoners." The Bush administration subsequently requested that the full Court of Appeals rehear the case. That request was denied on March 11, 2009.

"The disclosure of these photographs serves as a further reminder that abuse of prisoners in U.S.-administered detention centers was systemic," said Jameel Jaffer, Director of the ACLU National Security Project. "Some of the abuse occurred because senior civilian and military officials created a culture of impunity in which abuse was tolerated, and some of the abuse was expressly authorized. It's imperative that senior officials who condoned or authorized abuse now be held accountable for their actions."

The Defense Department letter announcing the photos' release may be viewed here.

The Bush administration long tried to keep photos of prisoner abuse sealed, lest their release provoke anti-Americanism in the Middle East and around the world. As the Guardian notes:

The release will increase pressure for pardons for military personnel who were punished for abuses at Abu Ghraib. Their lawyers are arguing that the Bush administration portrayed it as an isolated incident, whereas in fact it was widespread and approved at the highest levels.

There is a risk the pictures might create another backlash in the Middle East, though it is more likely they will be seen in their historical context as part of the Bush era.

Likewise, some current and former CIA officials are already excoriating the administration's decision to release the photos now, rather than allowing it to play out in the Supreme Court, according to ABC's Jake Tapper. One former CIA official, Dr. Mark M. Lowenthal, speaking to ABC, describes the photos' release as "prurient" and "reprehensible." Lowenthal then goes on to lament what he sees as an unnecessary and egregious effort to throw the CIA under the bus.

However, Tapper also points out that efforts to keep the photos sealed has long been a losing battle in court, which has already ruled that unsealing "the photographs is likely to further the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners." And a November petition to re-hear the case and reverse this ruling was denied last month.