Poison Photo-Drop
President Obama's decision to release photographs of prisoner abuse will imperil our nation and its defenders.


Andrew C. McCarthy

American soldiers, American civilians, and other innocent people are going to die because Pres. Barack Obama wants to release photographs of prisoner abuse. Note: I said, “wants to release”not “has to release,” or “is being forced to release,” or “will comply with court orders by releasing.” The photos, quite likely thousands of them, will be released because the president wants them released. Any other description of the situation is a dodge.

If President Obama wanted to refrain from releasing these photos in order to protect the military forces he commands or promote the security of Americanshis two highest obligations as presidenthe could do so by simply issuing an executive order. The applicable statute expressly allows for it, just as it provides for Congress — now in the firm control of the president and his party — to withhold the photos from disclosure. Instead, Obama and congressional Democrats are choosing to release the photos.

They are making that choice fully aware that it will cost lives. It is a sedulous Democrat talking-point, repeated most recently by Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services chairman and a key Obama ally, that the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib inspired new terrorist recruits, caused American combat casualties, and made the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attack. This has long been Obama’s own position. It is a charge he made throughout the 2008 campaign, and it is one he repeated just a month ago in his Strasbourg speech: “When we saw what happened in Abu Ghraib, that wasn’t good for our security — that was a recruitment tool for terrorism. Humiliating people is never a good strategy to battle terrorism.”

It was not by reading news reports about prisoner abuse that “we saw what happened at Abu Ghraib.” It was by viewing the graphic photos: the images broadcast incessantly throughout the world, used simultaneously by al-Qaeda and by the anti-war Left to condemn the United States military, the United States government, and the American people themselves for the aberrational depravity of an unrepresentative handful of rogue prison guards. Obama has always been very much a part of the anti-war Left. That’s why he can make the risible assertion that “humiliating people” was anyone’s “strategy to battle terrorism.” That is why he said at a CNN campaign forum last June that “Abu Ghraib is something that all of us should be ashamed for, even if you were supportive of a war.”

Obama doesn’t have the political nerve to end the war. But he is slowly (or, as he’d no doubt put it, pragmatically) strangling the war effort. A critical part of the antiwar project is to make Americans feel ashamed of defending ourselves, inducing us to accept the European view that actions taken in our defense — even those that have protected us from additional jihadist strikes — tarnish our image, stir our enemies, and put us in grave danger. Better to go back to seeing terrorism as a law-enforcement concern, this theory holds, and accept the occasional terrorist strike as a cost of managing, rather than fighting, this scourge. What we lose in dead Americans, the argument goes, will be more than compensated for in increased international prestige — if not for the United States, at least for Barack Obama. Discrediting the war effort itself is what the release of these photos is about.

The ACLU, the anti-war crowd’s Old Reliable, has argued for years that release of the photos would “provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib,” and thus that their “disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.”

These contentions are absurd. No one is claiming that there has been no prisoner abuse outside Abu Ghraib. It has long been reported that there were many other allegations — although the bipartisan 2004 Schlessinger Panel, in rejecting claims of systematic prisoner abuse, reported that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of 50,000 detainees in the War on Terror had viable abuse claims, an extraordinarily low percentage by historical standards. Many officials have already been held accountable, investigations are continuing, and there is no need to broadcast the photos for that process to go forward.

Exposing these photos to scrutiny, moreover, would not “help the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse.” It would be just as likely to achieve the opposite. A photograph captures an instant, not a pattern. It is capable of being grossly manipulated: We could have no photos and still have widespread abuse, or a million photos and still have relatively little. The Left knows this quite well, and that explains why the mainstream media stopped broadcasting video of the 9/11 attacks (and other terrorist strikes) for fear of tarring all Muslims with the acts of a few. The photos at issue won’t tell us anything significant about prisoner abuse, and they may very well serve to distort reality. What seems certain is that they will get Americans killed; again, that is Obama’s own stated view, which, as Front Page magazine’s Ben Johnson recounts, is echoed not only by Sen. Levin but by Sens. John Kerry and John McCain, among others.

The administration claims its hands are tied because of a ruling last September by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. That is untrue. The Second Circuit decision rejected the Defense Department’s argument that disclosure was foreclosed by an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for “law enforcement records” that “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.” The three-judge panel reasoned that while the term “any individual” could be broadly construed, it should not cover a class of millions of people, such as all the members of our armed forces who might be jeopardized. To do so, the panel said, would nullify what it took to be the higher purpose of FOIA: to let Americans “know what their government is up to.”