City of Brass

City of Brass

About those photos… (part 1)

This is a guest post by Thomas Nephew.

A few days ago, my friend Aziz Poonawalla published a couple of posts — “Obama is right not to release the prisoner abuse photos” and “release the prisoner abuse photos — but not right now” — on his “City of Brass” blog. I disagreed and posted a somewhat lengthy comment to that effect at Aziz’s second post.

While I stand by that comment, on review it didn’t fully engage the arguments of the post it was attached to (“release later”) as well as it (perhaps) did those of Aziz’s initial post (“right not to release”). Since Aziz has graciously asked me to make a post out of my comment and engage in a fuller dialogue about the issue, I’ll try to correct that here, in a couple of posts.


Right not to release the prisoner photos?

In his first article, Aziz echoes Obama’s statement to the press that the photos are “not particularly sensational” when he argues that

…If these photos had new information in them – for example, abuse of children, as alleged by Seymour Hersh, then in the interest of justice they should be released. But Obama says he has personally reviewed the photos, and I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says that they contain nothing significantly new. Publishing these photos would ensure the next day they are plastered across newspapers throughout the middle east. I have argued in support of a ban on aerial bombardment in Pakistan and a disavowal of collateral damage as acceptable military doctrine on the grounds that these policies harm our cause by providing recruitment for our enemies and turning the muslim public against us; release of these photos would have much the same effect.


…and draws essentially the same puzzling conclusion Obama does; in Obama’s words, a release “would not add any additional benefit to our understanding” ; rather, “…the most direct consequence would be to further inflame anti-American opinion.”

Both Aziz and (more importantly, of course) President Obama make arguments here that seem narrowly crafted to the situation at hand, but carry disturbing implications for future decisions. Based on Obama’s statements, are we truly to believe that Obama would not oppose the publication of photos that did contain “significantly new” elements, let alone “sensational” ones? Viewed through the prism of Obama’s own description — again, “not particularly sensational,” “[no] additional benefit to our understanding” — these photos are among the revelations least likely to inflame anything . As I argued in my comment:


By these arguments — trust the President, we elected him to make these decisions, it might harm the troops — you would or should have agreed that Abu Ghraib photos shouldn’t have been released. The combat situation was far more explosive then than it is now, plus the photos revealed something qualitatively new. Neither is the case now; I therefore strongly dispute whether American soldiers would be additionally disadvantaged by their release.

Obama’s arguments are far more important than the question of these particular photos, for they all but slam the door on his administration being forthcoming about any misdeeds on its own watch in anything resembling “real time.”*


Just as troublingly, Aziz’s support (and that of other committed Obama supporters) suggests that’s OK with elements of Obama’s base. Now, Aziz is by no means a knee jerk Obama supporter — as his call for a ban on aerial bombardment shows. (Nor — needless to say for those who’ve read him over the years — does he support torture or abuse in any way.) Nevertheless, the trouble is that in this case, his position strongly resembles — indeed, is effectively indistinguishable from — those of died-in-the-wool Bush administration supporters when the first inklings of torture and abuse were reaching us in 2003 and 2004.

Taken at face value, Obama’s arguments (and Aziz’s echoing arguments) prove too much: on these bases, there will never be enough reason to release information of this kind. As ACLU lawyers Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh argue:


…the fundamental problem with the government’s argument is that it lacks a limiting principle.

Any photograph of prisoner abuse, civilian casualties in Afghanistan, or U.S. military operations in Iraq could be used to “inflame anti-American opinion”; indeed, the same is true of any news article that discusses (for example) torture, Guantanamo, or the CIA’s secret prisons.

To give the government the power to suppress information because it might anger an unidentified set of people in an unspecified part of the world and ultimately endanger an ill-defined group of U.S. personnel would be to invest it with a virtually unlimited censorial power.

Finally, as long as we’re weighing imponderables, it’s important to recognize that revealing such information could have benefited U.S. stature abroad, even in the Muslim world — perhaps especially now, when it was allegedly risky to do so. As I argued in my comment (link added):


A second point, however hard to believe, is that the US stature in the world is strengthened when we show we will not shrink from confronting our own excesses. I rather think Obama has hurt himself rather than helped himself with his upcoming Cairo speech. Muslim critics will be right to say “words are fine, but when push comes to shove, Obama lets his generals push him around — he won’t even keep his promises to his own supporters, let alone to us.”

That’s enough for one post. In the next one, I’ll take up some of Aziz’s (and other writers’) arguments that they’re for releasing the photos later — just not right now. Aziz makes the error (in my view) that there’s an important, bright line distinction to be made between the photographed, but allegedly completely unofficial abuses documented at Abu Ghraib and the still unseen, but “explicitly sanctioned” policies like waterboarding at Guantanamo.


* It’s particularly rich in this respect that Obama fretted, in his statement to the press, about the possible impact on whistleblowers should the photos be revealed. It’s not clear to me yet whether the particular photos involved here were provided by whistleblowers or simply confiscated from perpetrators. But getting information out is presumably the point of what whistleblowers do; on the face of it, Obama’s last minute intervention in this case mainly proves that he supports suppressing embarrassing information or images, even when the arguments for doing so are weak.

Thomas Nephew is another blogsphere pioneer, who has been writing since just a few days after the 9-11 attacks. This post is reprinted with permission from his blog.

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