Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Credit Where Credit's Due

As dangerously misguided as I believe most of President Obama's decisions and policies are, I want to give him credit for reversing one of them:

In a dramatic, high-profile reversal for his young administration, President Barack Obama is seeking to block the release of 44 photographs depicting abuse of detainees in U.S. military custody in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by small number of individuals,” the president told reporters Wednesday as he left the White House on a two-day trip to the Southwest.

“In fact,' he said, "the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
Predictably, the ACLU, which filed suit under the Freedom of Information Act to have these photographs released, is not happy. As Executive Director Anthony Romero says:

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.

It is true that these photos would be disturbing; 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.
In my younger days, I used to donate money to the ACLU. At least, I did until I came to realize just how badly this organization had lost its way. And Anthony Romero's statement does nothing to change my opinion.

It takes a very confused organization to equate the Obama administration going to court to argue against the release of these photographs with somehow failing to restore the "rule of law." But then, that's the too-subtle-for-me reasoning I've come to expect from the ACLU over the years. Much like their implication that releasing names, dates, testimony, and other written documentation of detainee abuse and the many investigations regarding that issue somehow fail to acknowledge the crimes of the past. That unless even more photographs are made public in addition to those already available, then "these atrocities" are somehow being covered up.

And of course, nowhere in Anthony Romero's statement is any mention made of the effect that another round of such photographs will have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The ACLU seems blissfully unaware that even a false report in Newsweek -- and one without photographs, no less -- of a Koran being flushed down the toilet in Guantanamo Bay triggered riots in several countries, leaving 14 or more people dead and even more injured. Or maybe they are aware, and that's what they mean by "these photos would be disturbing."

If I thought the ACLU was actually interested in the truth of this issue, I might give them the benefit of the doubt here. But I don't believe the ACLU is after the truth of who did what, and did it when, and did it where, and did it why. As ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh says:
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. . . . 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.
That's a telling quote. The ACLU and its lawyers already have their narrative, and they want these photographs for their emotional impact. Because the American public might not buy their version of a U.S. military that actively promotes and encourages "widespread" abuse of detainees, compared with a U.S. military that has investigated and prosecuted its own for these abuses, without that additional visual club over the head. And if a few religious fundamentalists die in riots abroad or U.S. soldiers face increasing attacks from the very people in Iraq and Afghanistan they've spent the last few years winning the trust of, then so be it.

There is nothing to be gained from releasing these photographs from years ago beyond domestic political point-scoring, but there is much that could be lost. And I'm happy that President Obama has finally come to understand that.

UDPATE: From ian, a commenter over at contentions:
Photographs are often a propaganda tool. If you have tales of abuse, it doesn’t penetrate the public’s consciousness. But if you get a photo, the image overrides everything else, even the facts. Then the event documented in the image becomes all-encompassing and takes on a life and meaning of its own. For those mining the torture narrative, this is propaganda and public manipulation gold. It matters little if such images add nothing to what we already know or the conflicting balance of interests involved. Those committed to the revelation of such images are not interested in educating the public or preserving the historical record, but in obfuscating what occurred by the power of an image to influence and distort the general perception of events, knowing full well the harm the US will suffer in world opinion whether it is warranted or not and hoping for nothing less.