Obama’s Suppression of Those Photos

Jan 21, 2009

The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made, and whether their interests are being well served.

The directives I am giving my administration today on how to interpret the Freedom of Information Act will do just that. For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.

Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

-President Barack Obama, Jan 21, 2009

Yesterday’s post, about Obama’s moral failures during his first year in office, focused on the administration’s decision to block the release to the ACLU of photos depicting prisoner abuse by US military officials. My argument is that Obama’s 180 degree change in position on this matter constitutes a serious breach of his convenant with the voters and with his allies — that of accountability, transparency and duty to the Constitution, characteristics which, at the time of the election, held him in wide dissimilarity with George Bush, and thus close to the bosom of all humanity.

To my horror, at least one reader recounted the tired neocon trope, first voiced during the Bush administration’s frantic scramble to suppress evidence of abuse at Abu Ghraib, that banning of the photos is necessary to avoid anti-Western reactions abroad.

I think it’s important to discuss exactly why that argument is a senseless one, and why Obama’s actions are profoundly serious and damaging in the long term.

Let’s recap the series of events first. During the Bush administration’s term, abuse of prisoners of war, including torture and sexual assault, was performed by many US military personnel in detainment centres around the world. The most famous instances of this were revealed in the Abu Ghraib photos now widely recognized. The extent of these abuses strongly suggests a systematic, top-down program of crimes perhaps reflective of official government policy. In other words, the photos were evidence that the US government was engaged in eggregious criminal activities.

About 2000 additional images, including a few that many believe to be the most horrendous examples of flagrant criminal actions by US officials, were not published.

The ACLU requested access to the photos under the US Freedom of Information Act, in an attempt to gather evidence in their investigation of a wrongful death activity. A US lower court ruled that the ACLU should indeed be given access to the photos.

During his candidacy, Barack Obama preached that transparency and accountability were to be the hallmarks of the new America (see his speech above), a way to regain the world’s trust after 8 disastrous Bush years. Upon his election, he declared that he would support the lower court’s ruling and release the materials to the ACLU.

However, after campaigning by Bush supporter Joe Lieberman and Bush-Obama Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Obama reversed his position, repeating the baseless neocon trope of the pictures would “further inflame anti-American opinion” and “put our troops in greater danger.”

Indeed, to sidestep the ACLU’s clear and legal right to the photos, Obama signed into action a new law specifically for this purpose, apparently quietly slipped into a Homeland Security spending bill, to avoid vigorous debate on the House floor.

The ethical problems with this development are manifold. Let’s list some of the observations:

1. First, it’s certainly possible that publication of these photos might elicit anti-Western sentiments abroad. But you know what also elicitis anti-Western sentiments? Invading other countries, bombing civilians, running illegal detention centres, torturning people, raping detainees…. and covering it up.

In other words, those who care already know that the photos exist and that they show some awful stuff. Releasing the actual photos does three things:

  • it might incite them by confirming what they already know;
  • it provides limits to prevent the creation of tales that might go beyond what the photos show;
  • it provides hard proof that the new America is responsible and law abiding, thus providing assurance that no further illegal activities will occur.

Failure to release the photos does the exact opposite: it confirms that America is not law-abiding and is therefore unwilling to acknowledge and thus prosecute its criminals who abuse innocents, particularly those detained during the War on Terror. I can’t imagine a scenario more likely to incite anti-Americanism.

In the words of Thomas Eddlem:

“Obama’s suppression of the photos has arguably made it more dangerous for soldiers serving in Iraq. Instead of releasing the photos into a one-day firestorm, Obama seems to want to fuel conspiracy theories about treatment in Abu Ghraib in the Muslim world. And if we’re still covering up what happened at Abu Ghraib, covering up worse things than those crimes we’ve already acknowledged, Muslims around the world might reasonably ask: ‘What else is the U.S. covering up in other prisons?'”

2. So, some argue, we acknowledge that abuse happened. Is this not transparent enough? Why the need to actually see the photos?

Clearly, people have short memories. When reports of the first Abu Ghraib abuses first surfaced, the pro-war apologists immediately started downplaying their significance. Fox News blowhards even claimed it was “not as bad as fraternity hazing“. It wasn’t until actual photos were revealed that the world was forced to take notice.

Simply knowing about the abuses would have resulted in no prosecutions taking place and none of the centres being audited and closed. The images were everything. Without the images being published, torture would still be going on as an industrial interest in many of those places, and not just in the shadows where they still unquestionably linger.

Even so, deniers insist that the abusers did nothing seriously wrong. Well, the unpublished photographs are said to provide visual evidence of rape, beatings, murders and other such heinous acts committed by US soldiers on defenceless detainees. Until the photos are released to an impartial third party, like the ACLU, no one will take seriously these crimes, and no one will know if the true perpetrators have been brought to justice for the true extent of their crimes.

Need some more convincing? Some foreign media, such as The Guardian have already published written descriptions of what the photos might depict. Obama’s defenders say that this is quite enough transparency, thank you.

But wait… White House Press Secretary then said of the published descriptions, “the article is wrong and mischaracterizes the photos that are in question…. None of the photographs in question depict the images described in the article. Again, I think if you do an even moderate Google search, you’re not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other.”

By preventing impartial examination of the actual photos, the government empowers itself to be thus duplicitous, to admit to abuse but also to deny the seriousness of that abuse. In short, a body that commits a crime cannot be trusted to impartially steward the evidence of that crime.

3. The principle of conspiracy is well enshrined in American law. It is possible to be party to a conspiracy after the crime has been committed, if one acts to inhibit the investigation of that crime.

BushCo is likely guilty of instigating a system of widespread torture, rape and possibly murder; we don’t know the truth or extent of this because Obama won’t let us know. By concealing the evidence, ObamaCo becomes, in the eyes of some interpreters of the law, complicit in the conspiracy surrounding BushCo’s crimes.

In this highly defensible view, President Barack Obama and his advisors might be considered guilty of conspiracy to commit rape, torture and murder, inasmuch as President George Bush and his advisors might be, as well.

Do not doubt for a second that these moves to conceal Bush era government crimes will come to light in the next election season.

4. From the pages of Mother Jones:

“The new FOIA exemption that the Obama White House sought and obtained has one obvious result: shielding evidence of government lawbreaking, abuse, and torture under the Bush administration from public scrutiny. So much for Obama’s claim that ‘transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.’ There’s a name for what the Obama administration did… It’s called a coverup.”

5. As Mother Jones further reports, the special law passed by Obama doesn’t just prevent specific photos from being released to the ACLU, it offers blanket immunity to the photos for all Freedom of Information Requests. Thus it seems unlikely, perhaps impossible, for the photos to ever be used in evidence against the perpetrators they depict. Thanks, Barack.

6. As Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald put it:

“What kind of a country passes a law that has no purpose other than to empower its leader to suppress evidence of the torture it inflicted on people?”

No good will come of this. In the short term, the suppression wins Obama some time to not have to deal with the public outcry that will result when the true horror of US prisoner abuses surfaces. He also wins favour with the neocons and hawks. But the price is a serious blow to his credibility and, more damaging, the credibility of the USA as a rebuilding force for good in the world.

What many need to realize is that this is a critical moment in the history of the USA. Presidential “business as usual” –American exceptionalism, more to the point– is no longer tenable in a world where US might is no longer supreme. The need to build good will, not just with temporal enemies, but with traditional allies short on trust, has never been more important. Obama might be their last opportunity to make a good impression, lest the world conclude that Bushism is the new American norm.

Instead of worrying about what a handful of insurgents might do if incited by some photos, Obama should worry about the unmistakable message he has sent to his allies: that his grand promises of philosophical change and adherence to the rule of law only apply so long as he finds them convenient.