White House Reverses Decision On Abuse Photos

The Obama administration had said it would release Pentagon photos of prisoner abuse by May 28. But when military and foreign policy experts protested the decision, the White House reversed course — saying the release of the photos would endanger U.S. troops.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Very little is bipartisan in the debate over detainees. President Obama released memos on interrogations and came under fierce criticism. Now the president is holding back photos that show prisoners being mistreated by U.S. troops.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The president initially wanted to release those images from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now he says he's worried about an anti-American backlash.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: The photos were discovered during investigations of prisoner abuse back in 2004 and for the last five years, they've been kept under wraps. The Obama administration had planned to release the photos in response to a court order, much as it did last month with the so-called torture memos that spelled out harsh interrogation tactics.

But President Obama has since had second thoughts. The president says he in no way condones the abuse of prisoners that's depicted in the photos. But he says putting the pictures themselves on display around the world would serve no useful purpose.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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.

HORSLEY: General David Petraeus, who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, had voiced concern about the potential impact of the photos' release, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was worried, too.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama told the U.S. commander in Iraq he would try to keep the photos from being made public. But in this case, the commander in chief's word is not final. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president instructed his legal team last week to begin drawing up papers for a court fight.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): He believes that the release of these photos could pose a threat to the men and women we have in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and doesn't believe that the government made the strongest case possible to the court, and asked the legal team to go make that case.

HORSLEY: The administration's turnaround comes as a bitter disappointment to Amrit Singh, the ACLU lawyer who's been fighting for the photos' release. She says the president took a step in the right direction by making the torture memos public last month. She says Mr. Obama's pledge of transparency and accountability should extend to the photos as well.

Ms. AMRIT SINGH (ACLU): It is absolutely essential that these photographs be released so that the American public can examine the torture and abuse that was conducted in its name.

HORSLEY: Singh says the president's newfound argument, that the photos should be kept secret to avoid endangering U.S. troops, has already been made and rejected by the courts.

Ms. SINGH: The district court in particular noted that terrorists have no shortage of excuses or pretexts for conducting violence.

HORSLEY: Former military attorney Scott Silliman agrees that the troop safety argument is unlikely to carry much weight in this case. In order to justify withholding the photos, he says the government would have show a specific threat to the troops, not merely a speculative danger.

But Silliman, who now heads the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke, says President Obama may see some advantage in pursuing the court battle, even if he ultimately loses.

Mr. SCOTT SILLIMAN (Duke University): Department of Defense officials are extremely concerned about releasing these photos so to some extent, I think the president may be saying, okay, I hear your concerns, I'm going to take a position that we're not going to release this. If the court forces us to do it on appeal, we'll do it, but at least I'm standing behind you on this issue.

HORSLEY: The president faced strong opposition, both inside and outside his administration, when he decided to release the torture memos last month. Silliman thinks holding back on the photos, at least temporarily, might be a kind of peace offering for Mr. Obama to those he didn't side with in the last round.

Shortly after announcing his decision on the photos, Mr. Obama headed west to deliver the commencement address last night at Arizona State University.

(Soundbite of �Pomp and Circumstance�)

HORSLEY: The Sun Devils named a new scholarship for the president, but stopped short of giving Mr. Obama an honorary degree. ASU explained its decision, saying much of the president's work is still ahead of him. He agreed, and said that goes for the new graduates as well.

President OBAMA: No matter how much you've done or how successful you've been, there's always more to do, always more to learn, and always more to achieve.

(Soundbite of applause)

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, traveling with the president.

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