If there was one incident that led to the decline in support for the Iraq War at home and abroad, it was the 2004 publication of pictures of U.S. soldiers taunting and abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Those photos, broadcast endlessly into homes around the globe, depicted grinning American soldiers, male and female, next to naked Iraqi prisoners stacked in piles on the floor. Others showed snarling dogs intimidating prisoners. And perhaps the most infamous revealed a female soldier, cigarette dangling from her curled lips, leading a naked prisoner by a dog collar around his neck.
The soldiers who engaged in this rogue, illegal conduct were tried, convicted, and went to prison. But the damage they did can never be fully expiated. Now, a freedom of information filing by the American Civil Liberties Union threatens to open this old wound. The ACLU filed suit in 2003 to obtain the release of all photos related to military detention, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found in its favor last September. The Bush administration sought to reverse the ruling, but the Obama administration said in April it would not fight the release of the photos. Then, President Obama reversed course this week, instructing the Justice Department to challenge the release in court on the grounds of national security.
President Obama now says that 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." He added that the most direct consequence of releasing them "would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger." He did not come to this conclusion without help -- namely from Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Gen. David McKiernan, outgoing American commander in Afghanistan, who pushed Defense Secretary Robert Gates to urge the administration to fight the release of the photos.
Better late than never. Obama's reversal comes after weeks of controversy over his Justice Department's decision to release Bush administration memos giving legal justifications for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on enemy combatants. While the two actions strike some left-wing critics as contradictory, in fact they demonstrate the fine line Obama is trying to walk on Bush-era decisions.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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