The Obama administration agreed late Thursday to release dozens of photographs depicting alleged abuses at U.S. prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush White House.
The decision will make public for the first time photos obtained in military investigations at facilities other than the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Forty-four photos that the American Civil Liberties Union was seeking in a court case, plus a “substantial number” of other images, will be released by May 28.
The photos, examined by Air Force and Army criminal investigators, are apparently not as shocking as those taken at Abu Ghraib, which became a symbol of U.S. mistakes in Iraq. But Defense Department officials nevertheless are concerned that the release could incite another backlash in the Middle East.
Some of the photos show U.S. service members intimidating or threatening detainees by pointing weapons at them, according to officials who have seen them. Military officers have been court-martialed for threatening detainees at gunpoint.
“This will constitute visual proof that, unlike the Bush administration’s claim, the abuse was not confined to Abu Ghraib and was not aberrational,” said Amrit Singh, a lawyer for the ACLU, which reached the agreement as part of a long-running legal battle for documents related to anti-terrorism policies under President George W. Bush.
The decision comes as President Obama is trying to quell a drive to investigate Bush-era practices, which was spurred in part by his release last week of Justice Department memos detailing the Bush administration’s legal justifications for harsh interrogations. But the photos and other possible disclosures stemming from the ACLU lawsuit threaten to stoke the controversy.
Other disclosures to be considered in the weeks ahead include transcripts of detainee interrogations, a CIA inspector general’s report that has largely been kept secret, and background materials in a Justice Department investigation into prisoner abuse.
In each instance, Obama and his administration are being forced to decide whether to release the material entirely, disclose it with redactions, or follow the lead of the Bush administration and fight in court to keep it classified.
Last week, Obama opted to demand relatively few redactions in the Justice Department memos. The disclosures prompted Democratic lawmakers and liberal interest groups to demand a congressional investigation -- and possible prosecutions -- of officials in the Bush administration.
With Obama trying to push ambitious healthcare, tax and environmental legislation through Congress, an official said that the White House rejected the idea of appointing a Sept. 11 Commission-style review of Bush’s anti-terrorism policies, fearing it could become a partisan distraction.
Now the release of photos and other materials threatens to heighten the political pressure on Obama as he seeks to balance competing constituencies.
The liberal base that elected him wants wide disclosure and an investigation. But pursuing that course risks alienating the intelligence and military communities that are crucial to Obama’s success.
Moreover, he must deflect attacks from conservatives such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who accuses Obama of putting the country’s security at risk and would surely affix blame to the new president if another attack occurred. Cheney has asked that additional documents be released showing the successes of harsh interrogation tactics -- handing Obama another politically complicated decision.
The president has tried to walk a fine rhetorical line, heeding liberals’ calls to release the interrogation memos but appearing to argue against further investigation or prosecution by saying “this is a time for reflection, not retribution.”
Instead, he managed to anger both constituencies.
“My sense is the president was trying to please a lot of audiences at one time, and that over the last [week] he has totally failed to put the mind of the intelligence community at ease,” said Mark Lowenthal, who was a senior advisor to George J. Tenet when Tenet was CIA director. “He is going to end up with a national clandestine service that will not be willing to do anything because they feel he will not be there for them when they need him.”
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday in an appearance at Camp Lejeune, N.C., that he worried about a potential “backlash in the Middle East” from the release of the photos.
“There are a number of suits that we’re dealing with for detainee photographs and so on,” Gates said. “And so there is a certain inevitability, I believe, that much of this will eventually come out; much has already come out.”
The Bush administration had opposed the release of the photos.
Late Thursday, Obama administration lawyers notified U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in New York that the government would release 44 photos plus a “substantial number” of other images.
The photos were taken between 2001 and 2006. All of them predate the 2006 revision of the Army Field Manual, which strengthened protections for detainees and prohibited all physical force from being used in interrogations.
In other potential disclosures, the White House has until May 13 to decide whether to release a 2004 CIA inspector general’s report on the agency’s interrogation program or file a brief with a federal appeals court explaining why it refuses to do so.
As part of the same lawsuit, the ACLU is seeking to force the government to release cables and other documents describing the contents of interrogation videotapes that the CIA destroyed.
“The issue is a test of the administration,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the National Security Project at the ACLU. “We were gratified they released the memos last week, but it’s clear there’s still a great deal of information about the CIA’s torture program and legal justifications offered for it that remain secret.”
The White House appears to be feeling its way through the controversy, and even allies on Capitol Hill are trying to determine where the president stands when it comes to reckoning with the legacies of the Bush anti-terrorism strategies.
Although Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, made strong public statements that appeared to discourage investigations of the Bush administration, Obama this week told reporters that the Justice Department would decide if anyone should be prosecuted for violating legal bans on torture -- and he suggested that Congress might create an independent panel to review the past.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a liberal member of the House Judiciary Committee, said that Obama was showing a “laudable willingness” to listen to his critics on the left, and that White House officials had told him they were still examining their broad approach to national security.
“In the next few weeks we’re going to know more about where they’re going,” said Nadler, chairman of a subcommittee on constitutional issues.
For the moment, the administration’s signals on whether to investigate the Bush record are causing some confusion.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) assessed the president’s position this way: “As far as I know, it has not been definitively stated as to what the policy is.”
Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.