WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama declared Wednesday he will try to block the court-ordered release of photos showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners, abruptly reversing his position out of concern that the photos would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House had said last month that it would not oppose the release of dozens of photos from military investigations of alleged misconduct. But U.S. commanders in the war zones have expressed deep concern about the fresh damage the photos might do, especially as the United States tries to wind down the Iraq war and step up operations against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Obama — realizing how high emotions have run on detainee treatment, both during the Bush administration and now — personally explained his change of heart, stopping to address TV cameras as he left the White House for a flight to Arizona.
He said the photos had already served their purpose in investigations of "a small number of individuals." Those cases were all concluded by 2004, and the president said, "The individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken."
When photos emerged in 2004 from the infamous U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, showing grinning U.S. soldiers posing with detainees, the pictures caused a huge anti-American backlash — some of the prisoners naked, some being held on leashes — the pictures caused a huge anti-American backlash around the globe, particularly in the Muslim world.
The Justice Department filed a notice of its new position on the release, including that it was considering an appeal with the Supreme Court. The government has until June 9 to do so.
Spokesman Robert Gibbs said release of the new batch of photos from the Pentagon cases would merely "provide, in some ways, a sensationalistic portion of that investigation."
Obama said later, "I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib."
Still, he said he had made it newly clear: "Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated."
The effort to keep the photos from becoming public represented a sharp reversal from Obama's repeated pledges for open government, and in particular from his promise to be forthcoming with information that courts have ruled should be publicly available.
As such, it invited criticism from the more liberal segments of the Democratic Party, which want a full accounting — and even redress — for what they see as the misdeeds of the Bush administration.
"The decision to not release the photographs makes a mockery of President Obama's promise of transparency and accountability," said ACLU attorney Amrit Singh, who had argued and won the case in question before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. "It is essential that these photographs be released so that the public can examine for itself the full scale and scope of prisoner abuse that was conducted in its name."
Human Rights Watch called the decision a blow to transparency and accountability.