While President Barack Obama is busy threatening and imposing sanctions on Russia for sending troops to Ukraine, he has perhaps forgotten how the United States got away with a more destructive military incursion 11 years ago.
And it seems the U.S. government wants to keep things that way, considering the reluctance to release Iraq and Afghanistan torture photos despite pressure from civil rights groups.
This week, federal judge Alvin Hellerstein has ordered the Obama administration to release around “2,100 images of U.S. military personnel torturing and degrading detainees” in Iraq and Afghanistan – important files the White House has long fought to keep hidden from public view, which essentially means it intends to censor them.
In 2009, Obama put out an official statement on the photographs’ release, reasoning they would “further inflame anti-American opinion and … put our troops in greater danger.”
To make the censorship conveniently legal for the government, Congress passed a law that year, the Protected National Security Documents Act, which gives the secretary of defense the authority to keep any photographic images classified if their release endangers the country’s national interest and citizens (including armed forces).
However, in August, Hellerstein ruled the Department of Defense had failed to show why releasing the photographs would endanger the lives of American soldiers and workers abroad.
Individually, the judge stated, there are photographs that “are relatively innocuous while others need more serious consideration.”
The nonpartisan, nonprofit American Civil Liberties Union has sought the release of the photos since 2004.
According to Marcellene Hearn, an attorney for the ACLU, the release of the torture photographs would be an accountability measure on the government’s part.
“It’s disappointing that the government continues to fight to keep these photographs from the public,” Hearn told The Guardian.
“The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened in our detention centers abroad. Yet the government is suppressing as many as 2,100 photographs of detainee abuse in Iraq and elsewhere. We will continue to press for the release of the photos in the courts.”
Keeping into account what followed the release of controversial Iraq prison torture photos, withholding more photographs is quite unsurprising.
The U.S. government faced heavy criticism after disturbing photos – first released in 2004 – from Abu Ghraib detention facility showed American military personnel, along with a private outfit, committing gross human rights violations against inmates.
The controversy blew up to an extent that on May 7, 2004, the then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had to apologize publicly for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.
Although the photographic evidence of U.S. military torture helped fuel anti-American sentiment in Iraq, it also uncovered abuses (and abusers) that would not have come to light otherwise.
As a result of interrogations, 11 soldiers were convicted and sentenced to military prison in 2004 and 2006 and also dishonorably discharged from service.
However, four former detainees who claim they were subjected to “electrical shocks, sexual violence and forced nudity” by U.S. military contractor CACI Premier Technology Inc. still await justice.
The White House website clearly states the administration should be open because “transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.”
Is hiding unlawful activities a characteristic of a “transparent” government? Not really.