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White House In U-Turn On Abuse Photos
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White House In U-Turn On Abuse Photos

Politics

White House In U-Turn On Abuse Photos

White House In U-Turn On Abuse Photos
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In a court hearing last month, the Obama administration said it would release Pentagon photos of prisoner abuse by May 28. But as military and foreign policy experts protest the decision, the White House is now saying releasing the photos would endanger U.S. troops.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The infamous Abu Ghraib photos served as early evidence of harsh treatment of detainees. Today, the White House announced its decision to fight against the release of other similar photos. The photos show the alleged abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. They're being sought in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. And as NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports, the decision is an about-face for President Obama.

MARA LIASSON: According to a White House statement, in a meeting last week, President Obama told his legal team that he was no longer comfortable with the release of the photos. On Aril 23rd, the Justice Department had told a judge in the case that it would release all the photos by May 28th. But since then, the president had second thoughts. After consulting with his generals in Iraq and Afghanistan, he decided instead to object in court. The White House said today that the president had seen some of the photos himself, and he would be the last to excuse the actions depicted in them.

And as the president pointed out today, the Department of Defense, during the Bush administration, had already investigated the cases and sent some of the abusers to prison.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's therefore my belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. In fact, 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.

LIASSON: Amrit Singh, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case in court, thinks she can still prevail under the Freedom of Information Act. And she says she's not alone in believing that today, President Obama broke his promise.

Ms. AMRIT SINGH (Lawyer, ACLU): All the groups that have been pushing for the release of this information have been pushing for accountability for the widespread, unsystematic abuse of prisoners that was conducted under the Bush administration. All of these groups would be sorely disappointed in the breaking of the promise of transparency and accountability that President Obama issued.

LIASSON: But Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, thinks the president did the right thing, even though he had to backtrack on a commitment.

Dr. RICHARD HAASS (President, Council on Foreign Relations): It's the right decision, but like all decisions which are ultimately dealing with dilemmas, he will get hammered for it. Governing is so hard; it's all about trade-offs. He'll be accused of a lack of forthcomingness and transparency. That said, it's still a difficult but right decision.

LIASSON: Now the administration will begin a fight it had previously avoided, arguing that the national security impact of the photos should be taken into account. Legal experts say it could be an uphill battle, as the courts previously ruled that the national security argument cannot be used to block the release of photos and documents.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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