aNewDomain — America: land of the free and brave. But that’s not how your federal government sees you. It thinks Americans are too prissy and delicate to “handle the truth,” as Jack Nicholson’s character famously calls it in “A Few Good Men,” an otherwise stupid film.
Officially, of course, US government lawyers are arguing that releasing hundreds of photos depicting abuse of kidnapped Muslim detainees at US torture facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan would inflame terrorists and hand radical insurgent groups propaganda that they would use in order to recruit new members.
But that’s a pretty thin argument, given the fact that anti-American organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda are doing quite well as it is minus the photos.
What’s the real concern?
The real concern is pretty obvious: that if the American people were to see visual documentation of the horrific abuse inflicted by America’s armed forces and intelligence agents upon low-level insurgents, political dissidents and people who have absolutely nothing to do with politics, they might become so disgusted that they would demand substantial changes in American foreign policy – like accountability for torture, and turning off the flow of billions of dollars in our taxes to the Pentagon, CIA, NSA, and dozens of politically connected corporate contracting firms who own Congress and the White House.
The government has been sitting on thousands of photos that reportedly depict “sexual assault, soldiers posing with dead bodies, and other offenses” at US owned and run concentration camps in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq for over 10 years.
The Intercept reports:
[Federal Judge Alvin] Hellerstein [of the Southern District of New York] first ordered the government to hand over a subset of the pictures in 2005 [in response to an ACLU lawsuit]. President Obama decided to release them in 2009, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the top American general in Iraq implored him not to. Congress then passed a law amending the Freedom of Information Act to allow the Secretary of Defense to certify that publishing the pictures could put American lives at risk, which then-secretary Robert Gates did. The ACLU continued to fight the issue in court, and last August, Hellerstein ordered that the government needed to justify withholding each picture individually.”
The Pentagon claims that it took a look at all the pictures again, and decided – surprise surprise – that every single one of them should not be released.
In a hearing last week, Judge Hellerstein made clear that he was not satisfied by the government’s continued stonewalling. “It’s too easy and too meaningless,” he said about the government’s censor-it-all strategy.
The usual standard in such matters is public interest: is the material in question newsworthy? Clearly, in this case the answer is yes. National security is another consideration, but because the Obama administration has admitted that the United States is a torture nation, and the events in question have been widely reported in a number of news stories and books, it seems easily disposed of.
Even if and when the photos and videos of detainee abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq are released, one wonders whether media outlets will publish or broadcast them. Many of the worst photographs from Abu Ghraib never showed up in print. If anything, the media is engaging in even more self-censorship than during the Bush years. Case in point: the only major media outlet to post last week’s propaganda video by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria burning a captured Jordanian pilot to death was Fox News.
But instead of being praised for refusing to separate news consumers from the news, the network got slammed for aiding and abetting terrorism: “[Fox News] are literally – literally – working for Al Qaeda and ISIS’ media arm,” Rick Nelson, a senior associate in homeland security and terrorism at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Guardian. “They might as well start sending them royalty checks.”
One wonders if Nelson’s supervisors at CSIS are aware of their employee’s ignorance about radical Islamism; Al Qaeda and ISIS do not work together, but are bitter rivals.
In a separate case late last year, a federal district court rejected the Obama administration’s refusal to release 28 videotapes showing the brutal force-feeding of a Guantánamo hunger striker. Again, the government had argued that the videos risked inflaming anti-Americanism.
I am not insensitive to the concern that the United States, its armed forces and its civilian citizens are at greater risk of attack as the result of its torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Seems to me, however, that continuing to stonewall and cover up photographic evidence of these heinous crimes — even though, as a cartoonist, I understand that a picture really can be worth 1000 words — isn’t the solution.
Besides, those photos belong to you and me. They were taken by US government employees, on the clock, carrying out duties that they were ordered to do, in many cases using government-owned equipment.
If torture of Muslims is the problem, the United States government should commit itself to no longer torturing Muslims. To be taken seriously, such a change of policy would necessitate closing the torture camps, releasing all the detainees, investigating allegations of torture and prosecuting those responsible from the low-level prison guards to the lawyers and top government officials who were aware of and authorized their actions – and those investigations require the complete airing of all evidence, including the photos in question here.
Torture photos are not the biggest threat to national security; Being a country that tortures is. Or, to put it the same way that government defenders of the NSA’s intrusive surveillance of the private lives of the American people do, you don’t have anything to worry about if you aren’t doing anything wrong.