US President Barack Obama has decided to seek a delay of the release of photographs depicting abusive treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, reversing an earlier decision, White House officials said May 13. Last month, the Department of Justice agreed to release at least 44 photographs pursuant to a court order. The photos were scheduled to be released May 28. Obama reversed that decision after meeting last week with White house lawyers, citing concerns over retribution against US troops serving overseas. Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) also wrote to Obama last week to urge him to fight the release of the photos.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a press briefing:
The President does not believe that the strongest case regarding the release of these photos was presented to the court, and that was a case based on his concern of what the release of these would do to our national security. 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 we made – doesn't believe that the government made the strongest case possible to the court and asked the legal team to go make that case.
Obama later said:
Now, let me be clear: I am concerned about how the release of these photos would be – would impact on the safety of our troops. I have made it very clear to all who are within the chain of command, however, of the United States Armed Forces that the abuse of detainees in our custody is prohibited and will not be tolerated. … Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) decried the announcement, saying, "The Obama administration's adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president's stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government."
In a letter sent last month to Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, the DoJ said it would comply with his 2005 order to release 21 photos, taken by an investigator at Abu Ghraib prison and later provided to the Army's Criminal Investigative Division after the Department of Defense lost a challenge to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request brought by the ACLU. The DOD subsequently appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and lost. In the letter to Hellerstein, the DOJ informed him that they would not appeal their case to the Supreme Court, but instead would comply fully with the FOIA request. (Jurist, May 13)