April 25, 2009 – The Pentagon, in response to a lawsuit, will end a Bush administration legal battle and release “hundreds” of photos showing abuse or alleged abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. personnel, according to defense officials and civil liberties advocates.
The photographs, to be released by May 28, include 21 images depicting detainee abuse in facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan other than the Abu Ghraib prison, as well as 23 other detainee abuse photos, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and a letter from the Justice Department sent to a federal court in New York yesterday. [Veterans for Common Sense is a co-plaintiff in the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.]
In addition, the Justice Department letter said “the government is also processing for release a substantial number of other images” contained in dozens of Army Criminal Investigation Division reports on the abuse.
“This shows that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was not aberrational but was systemic and widespread,” said Amrit Singh, an ACLU staff attorney involved with the 2004 Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that led to the promise to release the photographs. “This will underscore calls for accountability for that abuse.”
Singh called for an independent investigation into torture and prisoner abuse and said it should be followed, if warranted, by criminal prosecutions.
Pentagon officials disputed the charge that the photographs proved abuse was “systemic” in prisons run by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying the images came from 60 of the military’s own investigations of abuse allegations.
“What it demonstrates is that when we find credible allegations of abuse, we investigate them,” said a senior defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Pentagon has not stated when or how it will release the detainee photos, but defense officials said the initial 44 and possibly hundreds more are likely to be made public close to the May 28 deadline.
The Pentagon has noted that it investigates all allegations of detainee abuse and since 2001 has taken more than 400 disciplinary actions against U.S. military personnel found to have been involved in such abuse.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday said it was “unrealistic” for the government to try to keep photos of detainee abuse a secret, noting that the ACLU lawsuit and others like it have made public release practically unavoidable.
“There is a certain inevitability, I believe, that much of this will eventually come out,” Gates said. “Much has already come out.”
The Bush administration had argued that public disclosure of the photographs would unleash outrage and violate a section of the Geneva Conventions that is widely interpreted to mean that photos of prisoners should not be shown to the public.
But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit rejected such arguments in September 2008 and required disclosure of the photos because of a “significant public interest” in potential government misconduct.
A Bush administration request that the full appeals court rehear the case was denied March 11.
Facing a deadline to either produce the photographs or take the appeal to the Supreme Court, where they believed chances of success were not high, Pentagon and Justice Department lawyers consulted last week and decided to comply with the lower-court ruling.
“This case had pretty much run its course. Legal options at this point had become pretty limited,” said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman.
At the same time, however, Gates voiced concern that the release of photos, along with disclosures of interrogation memos and other materials, could cause unrest and create further problems for U.S. troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“I also was quite concerned, as you might expect, with the potential backlash in the Middle East and in the theaters where we’re involved in conflict, and that it might have a negative impact on our troops,” he said.