What Is the Government Still Hiding? ACLU Continues Fight to Obtain Photos of Bush-Era Torture

StoryFebruary 18, 2016
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Alex Abdo

staff attorney with the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Earlier this month, the Pentagon released nearly 200 photographs relating to the abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan but refused to release a larger batch of 1,800 images. The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting for nearly 12 years to win release of photos related to the Bush administration’s torture program. The released images include close-ups of bruised and lacerated body parts and bound, blindfolded prisoners. The withheld photos are believed to be far worse. We speak to ACLU attorney Alex Abdo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another situation, where the government wants to keep something from the public, not get something from the public. I wanted to ask you about another case that you’re working on, Alex Abdo. Earlier this month, the Pentagon released nearly 200 photos relating to the abuse of prisoners by U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting for nearly 12 years to win release of photos related to the Bush administration’s torture program. The Pentagon is still withholding 1,800 images. Alex Abdo, explain what it is that the public is not being allowed to see.

ALEX ABDO: These are thousands of photos that depict some of the worst misconduct by U.S. military servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are similar to the Abu Ghraib photos, we’ve been told, in terms of the gruesomeness and brutality of what they depict. But they don’t come from just one facility, they come from two dozen.

And the reason why it’s so important that the public is able to see these photos is not just because we have a right to see evidence of governmental misconduct, although we do; it’s because the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have taken the position that abuse at Abu Ghraib was an aberration, the result of a few bad apples. That’s what the Bush administration repeatedly said. And President Obama himself has embraced that narrative. And it’s a false one. And these photos would give lie to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Could the public demand a backdoor on the government to get these photos, to be able to see it, in the public interest?

ALEX ABDO: Well, you would think that’s what the Freedom of Information Act was designed to do, designed to make government more transparent. And when President Obama was inaugurated, he’d committed to becoming the most transparent administration.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to 2009—


AMY GOODMAN: —when President Obama was inaugurated, when he announced he would block attempts to release the photos of prisoner abuse sought by the ACLU.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Understand, these photos are associated with closed investigations of the alleged abuse of detainees in our ongoing war effort. And I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib. But they do represent conduct that did not conform with the Army manual. That’s precisely why they were investigated. ... 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. Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was President Obama in 2009, right about the time you’re describing—

ALEX ABDO: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —right when he became president, that he said they want to be the most transparent government in history.

ALEX ABDO: And then, shortly after, he commits to withholding these photos from the American public. And he embraces the false narrative that the Bush administration had for so long made the official story, which is that this was an aberration, that this did not conform with policy, when in fact this abuse was a function of policy. It was a result of a climate created by senior officials in the Bush administration that tolerated abuse and encouraged interrogators to take the gloves off. That’s the phrase that Dick Cheney used.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in the last days, didn’t the Pentagon agree to release 198 photographs?

ALEX ABDO: They did. And they’ve released those.

AMY GOODMAN: As a result of your—as the ACLU.

ALEX ABDO: As a result of a lawsuit, that’s right. And they’ve released them. And they’re disturbing images, but I think what is most disturbing about them is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. The ones they’ve released are the least—the least gruesome, the least troubling, of the other 1,800 that they’re withholding.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen any of them?

ALEX ABDO: No. But some people have, and they’ve spoken about it publicly, and they have said they are gruesome, that—

AMY GOODMAN: And where—where did the torture take place? What do they show?

ALEX ABDO: They show detainees in about 24 different facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan who are being mistreated by interrogators and by other servicemembers abroad. And what they would show is a consistent pattern of abuse across facilities, across two separate theaters of war, which I think would provide unmistakable proof to the public that this was the result of a policy.

And, you know, it’s important to dissect the justification being given by the administration for withholding these photos. They’re not saying that releasing them would endanger anyone in particular or cause a specific threat to national security. They’re worried that they will be inflammatory because they so powerfully document government abuse. But that’s the argument for releasing them. That shouldn’t be the argument for withholding them. Democracies confront their misdeeds. They account for them. They don’t run from them. And that is what the Obama administration is doing.

AMY GOODMAN: We know, for example, when Seymour Hersh, in The New Yorker, released the photos at Abu Ghraib, what an enormous effect, impact, that had on people in the United States and around the world, leading to a massive debate around what the U.S. represents in the world. These photos, some of which we’re showing now—and our radio listeners can go to—are terrifying, leading, of course—and there were a few low-level soldiers who were jailed. Prisoners with bags over their heads.

ALEX ABDO: That’s right. And they are disturbing, as they should be. You know, [photos] are uniquely powerful in moving public opinion, in provoking a response. And you don’t have to look back to the Abu Ghraib photos to realize it. Not too long ago, the public saw a video of the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of police officers, that provoked outrage. And it provoked a national conversation about racial equality in this country. That’s why these photos are important, and that’s why we’re going to continue to push—for another 10 years, if need be—for their release.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, Alex Abdo, for joining us. Alex Abdo is staff attorney at the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going out to Salt Lake City. Terry Tempest Williams, the famous author, what was she doing at an oil and gas lease auction? Stay with us.

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