US: In reversal, Obama rules out release of detainee photos
14 May 2009 3:59 AM
WASHINGTON, May 13 AFP - President Barack Obama has reversed a decision to release photos depicting abuse of detainees in Afghanistan or Iraq out of concern the images could cause a backlash against US troops abroad, US officials say.
Wednesday's about-face came after his administration announced last month it had agreed to release hundreds of photos from US-run prisons in Iraq and elsewhere after losing court decisions in a long-running lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The photos were used as evidence in criminal investigations of US soldiers accused of abusing detainees in the "war on terror" during president George W Bush's administration.
"Last week, the president met with his legal team and told them that he did not feel comfortable with the release of the DoD (Department of Defence) photos because he believes their release would endanger our troops, and because he believes that the national security implications of such a release have not been fully presented to the court," a senior administration official said on Wednesday.
"At the end of that meeting, the president directed his counsel to object to the immediate release of the photos on those grounds," the official added.
The move did not mean Obama condoned the abuse of detainees during the previous administration, officials said.
Obama "would be the last to excuse the actions depicted in these photos. That is why the Department of Defence investigated these cases, and why individuals have been punished through prison sentences, discharges, and a range of other punitive measures," the official said.
The Bush administration had argued against the release of the photos in part by saying it violated the privacy rights of the detainees and military personnel, a defence official said.
But Obama had directed administration lawyers to oppose the release of the photos on national security grounds, that the images would put troops overseas at risk, the defence official said.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates and top military commanders had conveyed to the president their concern that the release of the photos could put troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters.
"There's not a commander that I know that has not expressed concerns" about the photos, the official said.
But Gates had publicly supported the decision to release the images, as lawyers for the Justice Department and Pentagon had concluded the administration's legal options had virtually run out, he said.
The senior administration official said "the president strongly believes that the release of these photos, particularly at this time, would only serve the purpose of inflaming the theatres of war, jeopardising US forces, and making our job more difficult."
The case dates back to a Freedom of Information request in 2003.
The photos are part of a wider debate about interrogation tactics against terror suspects employed by the Bush administration, with rights groups and Democratic politicians saying Bush-era figures approved torture.
Last month, the White House released four sensitive memos that blew the lid on harsh CIA terror interrogations approved during Bush's tenure, including the use of insects, simulated drowning and sleep deprivation.
Photos showing abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq caused global outrage and were exploited by al-Qaeda and associated groups to recruit and rally anti-US sentiment.