Why Obama is right about the torture photos

The president’s decision this week not to make public additional graphic photos from U.S. military investigations into torture was the right one. I say that as someone who had a hand in helping make public a large collection of such photos three years ago.

In early 2006, I was part of a team of reporters and editors at Salon that spent many weeks scrutinizing, reporting on and carefully assembling a cache of raw evidence from a classified Army investigation that had been obtained by investigative reporter Mark Benjamin. The culmination of our work was “The Abu Ghraib Files,” a groundbreaking report documenting the notorious Iraq war scandal and its aftermath.

One purpose then of our publishing nearly 300 disturbing images from the Army’s criminal investigation was to help deepen the American public’s understanding of what some members of its military had done. The other essential purpose of our report was to underscore that, two years after the scandal had come to light, nobody above the level of foot soldier in the U.S. military or government had been held accountable — even though it had become clear that the criminal acts sprang from policies crafted and directed at the highest levels of the Bush government.

That failure of accountability remains in place today, to our national discredit. And that should be the primary focus now: The continued pursuit of those responsible for the policies that gave rise to the war crimes.

DickCheney AbuGhraibFiles obama

That’s not to say Obama’s choice was an easy one, particularly given his vows of greater transparency, but I think his cost-benefit analysis here is wise. The nature of the crimes has been documented extensively and is known the world over. Publication of the additional images, based on the contours we have of them from news reports, is not likely to add “any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out,” as Obama put it on Wednesday. Allowing past if newly revealed images of intimidation and degradation to be splashed across the media in an explosive news cycle, on the other hand, would likely enrage legions worldwide and do fresh damage to America’s reputation.

Beginning to repair the grave damage done to America’s standing in the world under Bush was part of the great promise of Obama’s election. He’s been off to a strong start, with his gestures of respect for the Muslim world and his reaching out to political adversaries from Tehran to Havana. Perhaps it would be worth the risk of undermining that shift if the torture perpetrated by Americans at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere somehow remained obscure. But that’s not the case.

Obama did miscalculate with part of his rationale, emphasizing that releasing additional photos could endanger U.S. troops. As Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell reiterated in the Washington Post, “With 20,000 additional forces coming into Afghanistan, an election in August and the fighting season in full swing right now, the timing is particularly bad.”

The commander in chief wants to show support for the troops, especially at a time of escalation — but it’s a misguided emphasis, because on its face it aligns Obama too closely with tactics used at the outset of the torture scandal by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld as they sought to cover it up. (Unsurprisingly, some on the political left have used this point to pounce on Obama.) Moreover, it’s an unconvincing argument — U.S. troops are already in danger on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghansitan and elsewhere.

More important to consider in all this is the president’s courageous decision recently to declassify Justice Department memos and reignite a national debate, false dogma of Dick Cheney and all, about the policy origins of the disaster. The important development of the week, then, was not Obama’s about-face but the congressional testimony of Ali Soufan, a former FBI agent directly involved in the interrogation of crucial terrorist captives early in the war. Soufan, a highly authoritative source on the matter by most counts, barely stopped short of testifying that George W. Bush and his top officials peddled lies apparently fed to them by the CIA about the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. (Soufan called the former president’s statements “half truths.”)

Allegations that serious, atop further evidence concerning the authors of the brutal interrogation policy — and there are indications that other revealing memos may be forthcoming — seem to suggest real momentum toward greater accountability, possibly at a much higher level than we’ve seen. That of course is the goal here. Are more grim photos necessary to reach it?

I have friends in the human rights community, some of whom I worked with at length to help expose the troubling national security policies of Bush and Cheney. But I have to disagree with them on this one.

“This essentially renders meaningless President Obama’s pledge of transparency and accountability,” said the ACLU’s Amrit Singh this week, regarding the reversal on the photos. The Obama administration, she said, “has essentially become complicit with the torture that was rampant during the Bush years by being complicit in its coverup.”

It’s an advocacy group’s job to keep the heat on, but that’s rhetoric pretty far gone. It has long been clear that the torture debacle must be resolved to higher account. How best to do that remains up for debate. Meantime, what I see is a president working to navigate treacherous political waters, and doing it mostly with skill and conviction, in a prolonged and painful storm not of his making.

UPDATE 5/24/09: Heartening today to see that I’m in good company on the Op-Ed pages of the Sunday Times, where journalist Philip Gourevitch, who has explored the Abu Ghraib nightmare at great length, underscores why releasing additional photographs wouldn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. After all, as he points out, Dick Cheney has been glad to take credit lately for having terrorists under interrogation slammed against walls or waterboarded.

“Photographs can’t show us that the real bad apples were at the top of the civilian chain of command in Washington,” Gourevitch writes, “but that is what we need to know — or, rather, since we’ve known it and gone along with it for a long time, that is what we need to come to terms with now.”

1 comment so far

  1. [...] in Cairo on Thursday, Barack Obama will continue his quest to connect with the Muslim world and repair the grave damage done to U.S. standing under George W. Bush. It remains to be seen how much he might also press for [...]


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