Obama Decision to Withhold ‘Torture’ Photos Violates Public’s Right to Know

The president of the United States has taken what is perhaps his most problematic decision, in terms of following through on bold promises about ethics and transparency reform. The decision to withhold Pentagon photographs reportedly showing extreme interrogations was made due to concern the images could inflame violence against US personnel overseas.

There had been mounting pressure on Pres. Obama, largely from Republicans, to consider that releasing new images of US personnel engaged in acts of torture of terror suspects could “inflame the theaters of war” and lead to otherwise less likely casualties among US troops. Obama’s decision puts the White House at odds with a federal court order to release the images.

Obama told the press today that the images of concern are “not particularly sensational” compared to the well-known Abu Ghraib images, but that they still posed a serious risk of inflaming anti-American sentiment and spurring a rash of violence against US troops in Afghanistan, as insurgents emerge from the spring thaw to step up attacks.


The president added that the images are linked to “closed investigations”, which have been thorough, lengthy and conducted in a good-faith effort to uncover the facts, so “this is not a case where the Pentagon has concealed” evidence of wrongdoing. He will still have to argue in court that the order to release the photos cannot be enforced, due to the national security implications of an imminent and special risk to troops.

Having promised the most transparent administration in US history, and created websites designed to allow the public to monitor government spending and activity on economic and social policy, Pres. Obama’s choice to reject the findings of the court is either motivated by very clear and present security considerations, or is a stepping back from his commitment to complete transparency.

The public has a right to know what its government is doing and/or has done. This is the meaning behind the First Amendment’s numerous provisions empowering individuals to criticize the government, engage in unabridged press activity, seek redress for grievances and assemble for political or non-political reasons. This is the logic behind due process standards that require evidence be shown and ordinary citizens be allowed to challenge any claims made against them by the government.

The photos may be used as propaganda if released. This is a legitimate concern. But the problem is not the images; it’s the actions. If the actions are so abhorrent as to spark spontaneous moral outrage at home and abroad, it is such acts that fundamentally endanger US personnel. Suspicion of such acts is already being used worldwide as a form of perpetual propaganda to promote violence against US troops.

Pres. Obama’s actions to put a definitive end to abusive interrogations have been one of the best pieces of news for those who know that countering defamatory propaganda with positive truths is helpful in reducing the drive of fringe groups to commit violent acts against random representatives of the US. Nothing is more effective at countering the ‘America tortures’ propaganda than putting an end to that dark chapter of violent acts, confused legal theory and official impunity.

If We the People do not know what in fact was done, we cannot effectively pressure our representatives to ensure that such acts are not undertaken on our behalf. If we are able to bear witness to the degree of abuse and trace that abuse to its source in policy-making, then every individual, including those who may not yet have seen their moral outrage piqued, can fairly judge where they stand and demand the Constitution remain paramount to the whims of the powerful.

The photos were ordered released under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the purpose of which is to allow the public to provide an added level of oversight over government activity, to prevent or uncover wrongdoing. Nobody wants photos of past and already banned behavior, or any other policy choice, to unnecessarily endanger military personnel. It may be that Obama’s choice was his best and only, under sincere consideration for human life, but we need to know that the public’s watchful eye will be able to penetrate the veil of secrecy that can be used to hide bad acts by government.