Detainee Photo Update

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In a conference committee meeting yesterday, House negotiators held firm on their insistence that an upcoming war spending bill not include a Senate amendment that retroactively exempts detainee abuse photos from disclosure under FOIA.  Senate negotiators then dithered a bit, finally backing down only after Barack Obama promised to “take every legal and administrative remedy available” to ensure the photos are not released.  The photos, Obama said, wouldn’t add “any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”

Nick Baumann isn’t impressed:

Obama’s argument against releasing the photos is total poppycock. It should be totally non-controversial that additional photos will add to our understanding of what happened in the past. There’s a reason the CIA destroyed the interrogation video tapes: images convey a different kind of truth than words do. It’s one thing to read that Americans abused detainees, not just in Abu Ghraib, but throughout the world, encouraged by the highest levels of government. It’s another thing entirely to see the photographic evidence of that abuse. The second part of the White House’s argument is equally silly, because it can be extended ad infinitum. Are we supposed to keep secret anything that makes the US look bad? If Obama does decide to pull a Cheney and classify the photos as secret, he better get ready for a long slide down a slippery slope. What happens the next time there’s something that embarasses the US and might inflame opinion against Americans? Will he classify that, too?

I agree entirely with Nick’s second point, but not with his first.  It’s true that images are different from words and videotape is different from images.  But we already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we’re fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It’s genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

That doesn’t mean that Obama’s position is correct.  Preventing release via legislation or unilateral classification just because you don’t like the possible result of a court fight is an appalling precedent to set.  If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it’s worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn’t likely to tell us anything we don’t already know.  It’s really not a great combination.

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