Obama: Continuing to Block Release of Torture Photos

 By Kevin Gosztola 

Despite the fact that more and more information continues to trickle out because of the diligence of individuals, groups and organizations concerned about accountability for torture and other violations of civil liberties, the Obama Administration continues to block the release of photos, withhold information and stonewall efforts to hold Bush Administration officials accountable.
Throughout the Obama Administration, episodes have regularly taken place each time firsthand accounts on "enhanced interrogation techniques" and terror suspects in prisons and descriptions from policy papers detailing interrogation procedures are released as a result of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The requests usually lead to press releases issued by human rights organizations, which usually lead to the information released being shared through blogs, Internet news sites, newspapers, and quite often segments on cable news channels.
Coverage that promotes calls for accountability for torture and other civil liberties violations then gets kicked around and, invariably, a few congressmen or senators end up pledging support for inquiries into "possible" torture or display intent to investigate "possible" crimes committed further (this usually happens when they appear on television). But, the coverage always ends up dissipating and the Obama Administration always seems to conclude that properly releasing all information and media related to the crimes is not worth doing;"it's better to move forward than look backward" is what White House officials claim.
A year and one month ago, the Obama Administration opted to "block the court-ordered release of photos showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a request for the release of the photos in April 2009 but, one month later, the Obama Administration determined the photos would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and put U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan (and now an Obama Administration nominee for the Supreme Court) published a brief suggesting an earlier court decision to release the photos should be overturned. Her brief made the same argument the Obama Administration delivered to the press.
It also featured this bit of information on the photos: "the photographs include an image showing several soldiers posing near standing detainees who are handcuffed to bars with "sandbags covering their heads" while a soldier holds a broom as if "sticking [its] end* * * into the rectum of a restrained detainee," CID Report D 4782; see Pet. App. 169a-170a (discussing Report D); an image of a solider who appears to be in the process of striking "an Iraqi detainee with [the butt of] a rifle," CID Report F 8653; and several other images that show soldiers pointing pistols or rifles at the heads of hooded and handcuffed detainees."
The ACLU released a response to the Obama Administration's decision that was written by Executive Director Anthony Romero and stated, "The Obama administration's adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president's stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government. This decision is particularly disturbing given the Justice Department's failure to initiate a criminal investigation of torture crimes under the Bush administration."
Furthermore, the statement asserted, "The day we are no longer disturbed by such repugnant acts would be a sad one. In America, every fact and document gets known whether now or years from now. And when these photos do see the light of day, the outrage will focus not only on the commission of torture by the Bush administration but on the Obama administration's complicity in covering them up. Any outrage related to these photos should be due not to their release but to the very crimes depicted in them. Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated."
The idea that facts and documents eventually become known has proven itself to be very true. While released documents are usually released with heavily redacted portions, teams of individuals have invested time and resources into analyzing released documents with details on prisoner abuse and torture and then released reports (see a recent report "Experiments in Torture" published by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR)).
Through submitted FOIA requests by groups like the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), National Lawyers Guild (NLG), PHR, and other organizations information on torture and supreme violations of civil liberties and the law have seen the light of day.
Yet, up to this point, photos people all over this nation should have to confront and reconcile with have been kept classified.
On October 28, 2009, President Obama signed into law a Homeland Security appropriations bill that included an amendment to FOIA, which "granted the Department of Defense (DOD) the authority to continue suppressing photos of prisoner abuse." The ACLU urged Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to not exercise his authority to block the photos because they "are of critical relevance to an ongoing debate about accountability," but in November of 2009, Gates opted to go ahead and officially use his authority to block the photos.
The ACLU, which has spent more than five years trying to get documents and photos related to abuse and torture of prisoners released, responded to Gates stating that his "blanket certification" applied to the photos failed to provide an "individualized assessment that the amendment's language" required for each of the photos and the government "failed to provide any basis for the claim that disclosure of the photos would harm national security."
The last day of November, the New York Times reported that the Supreme Court overturned a decision that would have required the government to release the prisoner abuse and torture photos. Citing the recent amendment passed by Congress to rewrite the law, the decision furthered the suppression of the photos and forced the ACLU to go back to an appeals court and continue to argue why the photos should be released.
Perhaps, part of the reason the ACLU and others have had so much trouble is because the Obama Administration has adopted a policy of defending officials involved in developing policies that promoted prisoner abuse and torture or, as the Bush Administration characterized it,"enhanced interrogation techniques."
According to CCR, on May 12th of this year the Obama Administration "went on record for the first time in the case of Arar v. Ashcroft, CCR's ongoing fight to hold Bush officials accountable for the rendition and torture of Canadian citizen Maher Arar." The administration "did not need to get involved, but [chose] to come to the defense of Bush administration officials by opposing Mr. Arar's petition and arguing that even if these officials conspired to send him to torture, they should not be held accountable by the courts." http://ccrjustice.org/get-involved/action/demand-obama-stop-protecting-bush-officials
Arar was on his way back to Canada from a family vacation in Tunisia when he was detained in an airport in New York. US authorities detained Arar and interrogated him for ten days at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn. Authorities refused to grant him the right to a lawyer. And, finally, on October 8, 2002, Arar was transported to Syria, where he was tortured.
Arar described his experience on Democracy Now!: “There, I was put in a dark underground cell that was more like a grave. It was three feet wide, six feet deep and seven feet high. Life in that cell was hell. I spent ten months and ten days in that grave.
During the early days of my detention, I was interrogated and physically tortured. I was beaten with an electrical cable and threatened with a metal chair, the tire and electric shocks. I was forced to falsely confess that I had been to Afghanistan. When I was not being beaten, I was put in a waiting room so that I could hear the screams of other prisoners. The cries of the women still haunt me the most.
After 374 days of torture and wrongful detention, I was finally released to Canadian embassy officials on October 5th, 2003.”
In March 2009, the Obama Administration defended former Bush Administration official John Yoo author of the "Torture Memo," the memo that provided legal justification for interrogation policies that human rights groups have said "amount to torture." The administration defended Yoo because "the Department of Justice generally defends employees and former employees in lawsuits that are filed in connection to their official duties."
Prior to that, the Justice Department under Obama adopted a "'state secrets' argument" and asked "a court to dismiss a case against a flight data company that aided the CIA in performing alleged acts of extraordinary rendition."
The pursuit of accountability may not be reasonable or understandable to some, but for those who were victim of Bush interrogation policies that led to situations involving torture and abuse, accountability means everything.
It's the chance for victims to have their stories validated and respected. It's the opportunity for victims to have authorities no longer make them feel ashamed for suggesting they were tortured because certain government officials contend the abuse was not cruel, unusual nor did it rise to the level of torture.
It's the prospect of no longer being forced to pretend something horrific didn't happen because the person or people responsible are now going to be properly investigated, prosecuted, and, if found guilty, will face real consequences for their actions--consequences that should deter future actions by lawyers, psychologists, or military officers to participate in the development of interrogation programs that could be seen as violating the Geneva Conventions.
But, not only has the Obama Administration chosen not to hold Bush officials accountable, not only has the administration protected these officials from trial, and not only has the administration actively blocked and stonewalled efforts to release photos or documents that could contribute to justice for the victims of abuse and torture President Obama and others in his administration have admitted took place under Bush, but they continue the policies of Bush.
Main Projects Organizers Kevin Gosztola Obama: Continuing to Block Release of Torture Photos


World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.