Why Obama is Fighting to Keep the Detainee Abuse Photographs Secret

AFP Photo

Article by Jason Leopold, News Junkie Editor

By trying to block the release of photographs depicting US soldiers abusing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama is essentially killing any meaningful chance of opening the door to an investigation or independent inquiry of senior Pentagon officials who were responsible for implementing the policies that directly led to the abuses captured in the images.

And that may very well be his intent.

Of the 12 investigations launched in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, not one scrutinized Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or any other senior Pentagon or Bush administration official. All of the investigations were, for the most part, limited to the military police officers identified in the photographs.

But earlier this year documents began to surface that helped to explain why.

In February, two crucial pages from an investigation into detainee abuse were finally released. The probe was conducted after the Abu Ghraib photos were revealed

The two pages, which were withheld from the public for five years, describe a pattern of “abusive” behavior by U.S. military interrogators that caused the deaths of two prisoners at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in December 2002, just two days after former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld authorized the torture of detainees in that country.

The previously secret pages were part of a wide-ranging report into detainee abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay known as the Church Report, named after Vice Admiral Albert T. Church, the former Naval inspector general, who conducted the investigation at the request of Rumsfeld. That 360-page report, delivered to Congress in March 2004, said there was “no policy that condoned or authorized either abuse or torture,” which critics of the Bush administration believed was a cover-up.

Indeed, Vice Admiral Church, who conducted the investigation, never bothered to interview Rumsfeld because he did not believe it to be necessary.

A declassified version of Church’s report released in March 2004 said the Department of Defense “did not promulgate interrogation policies . . . that directed, sanctioned or encouraged the torture or abuse of detainees.”

In a rare display of criticism of the Bush administration, the Washington Post said in a March 13, 2004 editorial that the Church Report was “a blatant example of . . . Whitewashing” aimed at protecting the most senior members of the Bush administration who approved of and implemented torture against suspected terrorists.

“We suspected that these two pages [from the Church Report] related to the deaths of prisoners who were tortured to death was done only to protect the Bush administration from embarrassment and illegal activity, said Amrit Singh, an ACLU attorney, in an interview earlier this year.

Retired Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and issued a critical report on the matter, told New Yorker reporter Seymour Hersh in a June 2007 interview that low-level soldiers were not responsible for the abuses depicted in the Abu Ghraib photographs.

“From what I knew, troops just don’t take it upon themselves to initiate what they did without any form of knowledge of the higher-ups,” Taguba said. But Taguba said his mandate was clear. He was only authorized to investigate the military police at Abu Ghraib, and not military officials above them in the chain of command.

“These M.P. troops were not that creative,” Taguba said. “Somebody was giving them guidance, but I was legally prevented from further investigation into higher authority. I was limited to a box.”

Taguba added that he eventually learned the reason for the “evasions and stonewalling by Rumsfeld and his aides.” It had to do with protecting the CIA.

“At the time he filed his report, in March of 2004, Taguba said, ‘I knew there was CIA involvement, but I was oblivious of what else was happening’ in terms of covert military-intelligence operations. Later that summer, however, he learned that the CIA had serious concerns about the abusive interrogation techniques that military-intelligence operatives were using on high-value detainees.

“In one secret memorandum, dated June 2, 2003, General George Casey, Jr., then the director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, issued a warning to General Michael DeLong, at the Central Command:

“CIA has advised that the techniques the military forces are using to interrogate high value detainees (HVDs) . . . are more aggressive than the techniques used by CIA who is [sic] interviewing the same HVDs.”

In the recently published paperback version of his book, Wiser in Battle, retired Lt. Ricardo Sanchez, wrote that keeping investigations focused on low-level soldiers served a political purpose.

“A meaningful and unlimited investigation, which the Bush administration adamantly opposed, would result in an unmitigated disaster,” Sanchez wrote. “It would open up Pandora’s box and let out a world of evil.

“The administration didn’t want Donald Rumsfeld’s 2003 memorandum (or the administration’s related trail of memorandums and decisions) to get out, because it advocated an interrogation policy with few constraints…the Bush administration also could not afford to have information released about the CIA’s practice of having ‘ghost’ detainees at Abu Ghraib…”

Sanchez, who was the senior U.S. military officer in Iraq, had instituted a “dozen interrogation methods beyond” the Army’s standard interrogation techniques that comply with the Geneva Conventions, according to a 2004 report by a panel headed by former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger. Schlesinger’s report did determine that there was “institutional and personal responsibility at higher levels” for Abu Ghraib, but cleared Rumsfeld of being directly responsible.

In his book, Sanchez defended his decisions and said the interrogation techniques were in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Sanchez said he based his decision on “the President’s Memorandum” justifying “additional, tougher measures” against detainees, the Schlesinger report said. The memorandum Sanchez was referring to was an order that Bush signed on Feb. 7, 2002, excluding “war on terror” suspects from Geneva Convention protections.

A bipartisan report released by the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year concluded that the Feb. 7, 2002 action memo signed by Bush and interrogation memos from Rumsfeld were directly responsible for the abuse of detainees depicted in the Abu Ghraib photographs.

Sanchez praised the committee’s report but said in a new afterward to his book that it didn’t go far enough.

“We still do not have precise documentation of the grossly negligent failures of the military decision-making process inside the Pentagon,” he wrote.

Arguably, if Obama followed through on his initial promise to release the 44 photographs at the center of a lawsuit between his administration and the ACLU it would likely lead to calls to investigate former officials like Rumsfeld, which is what Obama has been hoping to avoid as he seeks to block access to other Bush-era documents involving torture.

According to Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s ex-chief of staff, said in an interview that investigations he conducted following the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib turned up a “visible audit trail” that led directly to Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Wilkerson said much of the information he gathered was based on classified documents, which he was not at liberty to discuss and no longer has access to.

But Wilkerson’s point certainly explains why Obama is going to extreme lengths to ensure the photographs never sees the light of day.

The administration is appealing the case to the Supreme Court and at the same time looking to Congress to pass legislation to block release of the photographs.

Late Monday, Senators Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham threatened to use a filibuster to shut down the Senate if legislation they sponsored blocking the release of all photographs showing U.S. Soldiers abusing prisoners is stripped from the Iraq/Afghanistan war supplemental funding bill.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Graham and Lieberman said releasing the photographs would serve “no purpose” at all. They demanded that their colleagues support the Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act, which would effectively grant power to the Secretary of Defense to block release of prisoner abuse photographs for a period of three years.

Both cases mark an about-face on the open-government policies that President Obama proclaimed during his first days in office.

On Jan. 21, he signed an executive order instructing all federal agencies and departments to “adopt a presumption in favor” of Freedom of Information Act requests and promised to make the federal government more transparent.

“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’s order said. “In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.”

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that after the disclosure of several Justice Department “torture memos” in April and the backlash that ensued, Obama is desperately trying to avoid further criticism from Republicans by continuing the Bush administration’s era of secrecy.

And like George W. Bush, Obama has already made the mistake of blaming the abuses in the photographs on a select group of soldiers as opposed to the policy decisions passed down by his predecessor.

“The individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken,” Obama said in a statement last month explaining his decision to withhold the prisoner abuse photographs. “It’s therefore my belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.”

However, a bipartisan report released earlier this year by the Senate Armed Services Committee said the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere was not the work of a “few bad apples,” as the Bush administration and Obama have asserted, but was the result of policies enacted by President George W. Bush and former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Obama’s statement directly contradicts the conclusions of the Armed Services Committee report.

The report said the abuses at Abu Ghraib and other US run prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq was not the result of “a few bad apples.” Rather, it was policy decisions handed down by the Pentagon to senior military officials and military interrogators and eventually reached prison guards.

In fact, court documents in the five-year-old case make that much clear.

Interviews with many of the soldiers who appeared in the photographs conducted by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division said Special Forces out of Fort Bragg was in charge of operating the military facilities where the photographs were taken and they had never provided soldiers with any written guidelines on how to handle detainees and in some cases egged them on.

In addition, soldiers interviewed said Special Forces Psyops and military interrogation teams authorized them to “play loud music and keep detainees awake if the interrogators wanted them to.”

One soldier said they “kept the detainees awake by holding them up or by playing the loud music,” the report noted. The soldier said Special Forces instructed soldiers that prisoners who were “violent or had information” were “flex-cuffed on their hands, heads covered and not allowed to sleep.”

Sleep deprivation, which is what the soldier appears to be describing, would be a violation of the Geneva Conventions ban on cruel and inhumane treatment and underscores how the Bush administration’s interrogation policies trickled down to low-level soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Detailed descriptions of the photographs has been publicly available http://www.aclu.org/torturefoia/legaldocuments/index.html on the website of the American Civil Liberties Union for nearly five years. The documents describing the photographs were part of separate reports prepared in May, August, and July 2004 by the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division (CID) into the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A female soldier who appeared in one of the 44 photographs that was set for release told CID investigators that she did not remember why the Iraqi prisoners in the photograph she appeared in were “flexicuffed to the bars…and have sandbags covering their heads,” but “detainees were put in that stress position either because the interrogators felt that the detainee could provide further intelligence, or because the detainee was a disciplinary problem.” She said the detainees weren’t placed in that position for the photograph but were “already there when we decided to take the picture.”

The female soldier who appeared in the photo testified, “The other interrogators and I did not have a lot of work to do for a couple of days. Myself and several other MPs… were fooling around in the prison, and SGT [redacted] took several photographs.”

The soldier said “everyone” was taking pictures and he was unaware of a “no picture” taking policy. “It was always an [military interrogator] call to zip-tie them and put them in certain positions.”

The documents in the case also includes a sworn declaration from former Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers warning that releasing the photographs to the ACLU would threaten national security and could lead to the deaths of American servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, a line Obama has now echoed.

Sanchez, the retired senior U.S. Military officer in Iraq, said in a new afterword to his book “it’s now clear the Bush administration did not tell the truth about the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay, or in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

“As a matter of fact, in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, administration officials worked diligently to deflect responsibility away from them and down to military leadership on the ground,” Sanchez wrote. “It is also apparent that the White House and the Department of Defense consistently attempted to minimize any further exposure of their actions and, specifically, to prevent a serious investigation into their executive-decision making process.”

Sanchez said, “in order to prevent this from ever happening again,” the Obama administration and Congress “must conduct more comprehensive investigations across all involved agencies, learn from the findings, and implement permanent changes. Only then can we hope to restore America’s moral authority.”