After more than a decade of fighting to keep them out of public view, the Pentagon released 198 photographs on Friday, mostly showing close-ups of tiny cuts, bruises, and scars on a series of anonymous men. But the real story is what the Obama administration decided to keep hidden. Friday’s photos are an innocuous fraction of a much larger cache of 2,000 images, detailing the abuse of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Some of the most graphic images are said to show American troops posing with corpses. Others depict U.S. forces holding guns to people’s heads or simulating forced sodomization. In one, a large man rides an elderly woman as if she were an animal and whips her with a stick. The mistreatment of corpses and prisoners are widely considered to be violations of the international rules of war.
Those grotesque photos aren’t any closer to seeing the light of day, thanks to persistent efforts by Obama administration officials to prevent their release.
The Pentagon has for years insisted that those images would incite violence against U.S. troops and potentially endanger Americans overseas. And officials had also argued that even the anodyne pics released today could inspire the same backlash—a claim that seemed hard for even the secretary of defense to believe.
While the abuse occurred under the administration of George W. Bush, the Obama administration has successfully kept this evidence of possible war crimes buried. President Obama himself, who took office in 2009 promising a new era of transparency and accountability for torture and other abuses, was prepared at the time to release some of the photos. But at the urging of his top military commander in Iraq, he pulled back, persuaded by military leaders that the graphic images would incite violence.
But seven years later, with Obama nearing the end of his presidency, the risk to troops has diminished, a fact that the Pentagon implicitly acknowledged in agreeing to release the nearly 200 photos this week.
Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter personally signed off on the photos’ release after determining that they would not jeopardize the safety of U.S. forces, defense officials told The Daily Beast. That was a notable shift in the position of his predecessors, who had used their authority under law to keep all the photos out of public view.
Carter reached his decision after consulting with combatant commanders around the world, whose forces might be targeted in any backlash, officials said.
They concluded that the risk was less now than in years past because there are fewer troops leaving their bases overseas and potentially coming into contact with people who might be angry about the photos. In Afghanistan, there are at least 12,300 U.S. troops—less than a 10th of the total in the early years of the Obama administration.
And in Iraq, there are a relative handful of U.S. forces compared to the hundreds of thousands stationed there in 2004, when graphic and disturbing photos emerged of the U.S. military’s treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison. Many of those troops were conducting daily patrols outside the base.
Inside the Pentagon, there was not a widespread concern that the photos threatened troops’ safety.
“As a matter of policy, we do not discuss force protection changes. While we are not aware of any specific threats related to this matter, we take the safety and security of U.S. forces seriously wherever they serve and always encourage a high level of vigilance among our personnel,” Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, told The Daily Beast.
But it was unlikely that Carter’s decision heralded a new era of openness. There was no indication that the secretary has changed his mind that photos showing mock executions or soldiers beating prisoners still pose a risk to U.S. troops.
“It’s shameful that the government continues to keep secret the most powerful evidence of misconduct that it has,” Alex Abdo, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been fighting in court for more than a decade to release the photos, told The Daily Beast. “Democracies disclose misconduct, and they account for it.”
These photos came from independent criminal investigations into allegations of misconduct by U.S. military personnel. Based on those allegations, 65 service members received discipline ranging from letters of reprimand to life imprisonment. Twenty-six personnel were convicted at courts-martial.
Under the Geneva Conventions, mutilation, cruel treatment, and torture of prisoners is forbidden.
“The disclosure of these photos is long overdue, but more important than the disclosure is the fact that hundreds of photographs are still being withheld,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement. “The still-secret pictures are the best evidence of the serious abuses that took place in military detention centers. The government’s selective disclosure risks misleading the public about the true extent of the abuse.”
While critics said the administration hadn’t gone far enough, others saw the Pentagon’s decision as a judicious, cautious step in trying to provide some accountability for abuses that even those who don’t want the photos released will not defend.
“I think the president’s calculation earlier [in 2009] that releasing all these photos could endanger American troops is exactly right,” Peter Margulies, a professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law who has written extensively on national security legal issues, told The Daily Beast.
“I think we’ve known since 2004 that some detainees were treated terribly. We rightly now regard much of that treatment as being in violation of international law and U.S. law. But we’ve had an abundant record that’s been developed on that dismal situation, including most recently the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture.”
The photos were are a reminder of a period when U.S. military personnel detained thousands of local residents—often for ambiguous reasons—and as the photos suggest, provided them uneven care.
The question of whether the sins of the past can be fully reconciled without visual evidence has been at the heart of the legal fight over the photos.
The ACLU first filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2004, demanding government information on both the military’s treatment of detainee treatment and on detainees who died in U.S. custody. The case wound its way through the judicial system. And in September 2008, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ordered the release of a 21-photo subset.
By April 2009, Obama was preparing to disclose those images. An ACLU lawyer at the time called it “a sign that [the Obama administration] is committed to more transparency.” Obama seemed willing, even though the photo trove contained horrors, according to former administration officials, military records, and news accounts at the time.
In May, however, the president had an abrupt change of heart. Obama went to the South Lawn of the White House and told reporters, “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.”
But in March 2015, a district court ruled (PDF) that the Pentagon’s blanket ban on releasing the photos was inadequate and that the photos must be released in full. But in November, Carter used his authority under law to block the photos, except not the 197 released now. The department said in court filings that all the photos were being subjected to a new review process.
The legal fight for the remaining photos continues. And, said the ACLU’s Abdo, without them, that chapter of history cannot be fully closed.
Abdo argued that absent the photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were shown hooked up to electrical cords and made to stand in humiliating positions, the public debate over torture wouldn’t have been as consequential.
“Photographic evidence is uniquely powerful and can sway public opinion and inform public policy,” he said.
The photos are available in a PDF hosted by the Department of Defense.