More on the Detainee Photos

| Fri Jun. 12, 2009 2:06 PM EDT

Kevin Drum responds to my earlier post on Obama's refusal to release more photos of detainee abuse:

We already have plenty of images of detainee abuse, and what we're fighting over here is more images, not videotape.  It's genuinely not clear that releasing yet more images will really accomplish anything.

If a court orders the photos released, they should be released even if they do end up causing some harm.  Still, I think it's worth at least acknowleding the fact that releasing the photos is likely to do some damage and isn't likely to tell us anything we don't already know.  It's really not a great combination.

Kevin's right that we're trying to get more images, and he's right that releasing the photos is likely to cause more damage. But I think there is a good chance that the new photos will show us something we haven't seen much of before: visual evidence of abuse in places other than Abu Ghraib. Even if they don't, I can see several things releasing the photos might accomplish. 

Many people still deny that torture and abuse of detainees even took place. (See, for example, Marc Thiessen's debate with Michael Ware on CNN earlier this week.) More evidence won't convince those people, of course, but it will help build a volume of evidence to present to them and others. It will demonstrate that we acknowlege our mistakes, rather than trying to cover them up. In addition, we know from the CIA videotape debacle that any evidence left unreleased is vulnerable to destruction. Releasing the photos would prevent that from happening again. We can't just sit around and hope the photos get released sometime down the line—there really is a chance they may be destroyed. That is especially true if any photos still exist that show people committing crimes, such as rape of detainees, that no one was ever prosecuted for. Releasing the photos is the only way to know whether more people should have been prosecuted for detainee abuse than actually were prosecuted for it.

The broader point, though, is that I shouldn't have to defend releasing the photos. In a society that supposedly values transparency and freedom of information, the burden of proof should be on those who want to conceal information about what the government does. One of the great ironies of Obama's position on the photos is that he issued a memo earlier this year encouraging agencies to release any FOIA'd information they were not legally compelled to withhold. (As opposed to the Bush-era presumption that you should withhold almost everything unless you were legally forced to release it.) In his memo, Obama inadvertently makes a great case for making the photos public:

The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears," Obama said in the FOIA memo, adding later that "In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

It's almost as if all that was bullshit.

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