Torture Issue Won't Die Down

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The treatment of detainees from the war on terrorism is not an issue President Obama wanted to see dominate his early months in office. But the release of legal memos justifying extreme techniques brought the issue to the fore, and the president's decision not to release pictures of detainee abuse in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan is bound to keep it there.


So that memo could see daylight, but some photographs will not - at least not yet. A new American president is attempting to set a limit on what is released about detainees. President Obama once favored releasing images showing mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, he's reversed himself. And we're going to get some analysis this morning from NPR's Juan Williams. Juan, Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Remind us when and where these photos were taken.

WILLIAMS: Well, as you say, the pictures were taken in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2005, as part of a military investigation into prisoner abuse. This was done by Army investigators. Now the ACLU says the photos are part of evidence of systemic abuse of detainees that was ordered from the top of the Bush administration. That's the case they are trying to make. So what we've got here are 44 pictures from various prisons, and they were scheduled to be released by May 28th. Now, President Obama said the pictures are not as sensational as the pictures that were taken at Abu Ghraib, and these pictures -from what the White House officials are saying - show some nudity, guns being aimed at detainees, people in shackles, but there's not the degree of humiliation that you might associate with the pictures that came out of Abu Ghraib.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned those pictures from the prison in Iraq that caused such a sensation several years ago. If those pictures are already out, why not release these?

WILLIAMS: Well, President Obama stressed yesterday the release of the pictures will not add to our understanding of the violations. He said those cases are closed. And he said that, you know, he's become convinced - in large part by military commanders - that the photos will inflame anti-American opinion around the world, and put U.S. troops in danger in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And, of course, this is a 180-degree about-face from President Obama. In fact, in April, the U.S. attorney in the photos case wrote to a judge that the Pentagon had agreed to the release. And so that's why I think there's a lot of attention here. The sense is that the president has turned on a dime.

INSKEEP: Juan, that sounds like a powerful argument. You don't want to inflame anti-American opinion and put service members at risk. But didn't the Bush administration already make that argument in court and lose? The judge rejected it.

WILLIAMS: In fact, that's exactly right. And you know, the judge rejected it. A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit said that they would not look at it again. So, that's exactly right. Now, the big difference is that President Obama is saying that he feels that the Bush administration did not sufficiently focus on the U.S. security argument in court. And he said that he wants to make that the case.

Now, politically - let me just say here, Steve - this is a show of solidarity with the troops and with the military leaders by President Obama. And the administration has said that they may, in fact, even push this now towards a Supreme Court review. But it's unlikely, according to legal experts, that the high court would take the case.

So, if the photos are eventually released, President Obama is now going to be in position to say he tried to stop it and politically, that's advantageous for him.

INSKEEP: Oh, because you say, well, the courts are going to release it, and we'll let them take the blame for that.

WILLIAMS: Well, I couldn't do anything, right? This was a matter of U.S. law. But I, as a man who is the commander-in-chief and trying to protect my troops, tried to do what I could.

INSKEEP: Do you have any idea what's the difference here between these photographs that the president now wants to hold back - if he can, or as long as he can - and the so-called torture memos, which laid out U.S. government policy on this during the Bush administration, which President Obama was glad to release?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, White House officials yesterday were saying there's a clear line, that the memos are a policy issue. You're going to look into whether or not U.S. laws, international law, was clearly broken with foresight, and there was the memos, the Justice Department memos were written, in fact, to circumvent those laws. And the photos, they say, are evidence of nothing.

It's a settled case. Action has been taken against people who violated the rights of the detainees. Now, I must say that the left wing in this country is getting increasingly upset with the Obama administration about increasing troops in Afghanistan, troops still on the ground in Iraq, presidential arguments about information about the photos. But what they say, the White House sees a difference between the memos and the photos.

INSKEEP: There's also some trouble within the Democratic Party. Democrats are under pressure because some are said to have been briefed - alleged to have been briefed - during the time these enhanced interrogations were taking place.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's right, Steve. The Democrats would lose some moral standing of saying they had no idea what was going on. The Republicans could rightly say the Democrats are complicit. They knew what was going on and assented to it. That's the politics of it. But remember, these are Bush administration officials who were involved. So while the Democrats might suffer some damage, there's greater political liability for Republicans.

INSKEEP: Thanks very much. That's NPR's Juan Williams on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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