The Pentagon is refusing to release a trove of graphic photos showing U.S. troops abusing detainees, arguing that doing so would play into ISIS’s hands.
It’s a bit of a counterintuitive argument, because the photos were all taken from investigations into detainee abuse during the early days of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—long before ISIS existed.
Nevertheless, Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris told a federal court in a declassified declaration filed late Friday that all 2,100-plus photos should be kept from public view. While the photos show American forces simulating anal rape and holding guns to detainees’ heads—the kind of images that have, unfortunately, leaked from war zones before—Harris maintained that the release of these particular photos could endanger the lives of Americans. Moreover, they could give ISIS a propaganda win.
The Islamist group “has a particular interest in using imagery associated with U.S. detention practices as part of its recruiting practices,” Harris wrote. ISIS dressed several of the Westerners it publicly executed in orange jumpsuits, “a symbol commonly associated with the detainees based at Guantanamo Bay.”
Harris’s propaganda argument is also a bit counterintuitive. Under a law enacted in the early days of the Obama administration, the photos are allowed to stay hidden only if the secretary of defense certifies that they could risk American lives. The law doesn’t say anything about the photos’ propaganda value.
The ACLU—whose 2004 lawsuit sparked the original dispute over the photos—is expected to respond to the Pentagon’s brief by mid-January. Judge Alvin Hellerstein could rule as early as January 20 on whether the entire trove can be released.—Noah Shachtman