Commentary: Detainee abuse photos should be released eventually

This editorial appeared in The (Tacoma) News Tribune.

If the lives of American troops were not at stake, the Obama administration would have no excuse for withholding photographs that reportedly depict past abuses of Iraqi and Afghan prisoners.

But Barack Obama made a defensible decision this week to appeal a court's order to release the photos. Those images must be made public at some point; the question is when. National security and the safety of troops are not trifling considerations, even when weighed against the powerful claims of open government.

The pictures in dispute are evidence from about 200 settled investigations of Americans charged with mistreating captives. Officials who've seen them say they generally consist of autopsy photos of prisoners who died in custody and snapshots taken by military personnel. Some of the latter have been compared to the souvenir photos taken in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison, which depicted the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners.

Obama summed up his case succinctly Thursday: "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."

The "additional benefit" question is crucial. Obama already opened the archives of secret Bush-era memos justifying waterboard torture and other harsh interrogation techniques. Americans are likely to get an accounting of abuses committed in their name. More photographs would further dramatize the issue – a fervent goal of those seeking their release – but they wouldn't necessarily produce more in the way of information, let alone justice.

To read the complete editorial, visit The (Tacoma) News Tribune.

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