The shocking images of torture revealed at Abu Ghraib were only the tip of the iceberg
The Abu Ghraib torture photos were a blow to the American psyche. Seeing soldiers treat captives in an inhumane manner led the news for weeks. But as recent events have shown, those terrible images were but the tip of an iceberg of horror.
In 2003, using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) requested an additional 2,000 photos of torture that took place in those Iraqi and Afghani prisons on top of what was widely released at the time.
The Act termed FOIA is a law that any citizen can use to request information from governments. Currently, 95 governments have Freedom of Information laws. Basically, if you write a letter to a specific department in the government, they must allow you to either review the records on site or send them to you, and cannot ask what you are using them for.
There are exemptions to the United States FOIA, and naturally national security is one of them, as well as privacy concerns. There are different provisions and statutes that can be used to either demand production or circumvent production depending on the intended use of the documents. Here is a full description of the FOIA.
In 2004, the ACLU filed a case called American Civil Liberties Union, et al v. Department of Defense. The first request for the photos was made in 2003 and, after months of no response, the lawsuit was filed. The DOD has stalled and delayed, citing public safety, for a decade. Many entities had wanted the photos for various reasons, but for most Americans, it was about transparency.
The ACLU argued that the pictures are “the Best Evidence of what took place in the Military’s Detention Centers, and their disclosure would help the public better understand the implications of some of the Bush Administration’s policies,”
Federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein made a ruling in a case filed by the ACLU case. Stating that the government had stalled intentionally, and that the release of the photos would not endanger Americans overseas, he ordered the release of the photographs.
Judge Hellerstein issued his order originally on August 17, 2004 that the Department of Defense and its military branches produce the requested documents and photos. The government appealed this, arguing that the FOIA was not intended for this purpose, and that the safety of the public and the privacy of those in the photos wouldn’t be protected.
So the U.S. government, under the leadership of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, along with Leon Panetta subverted the FOIA. In 2005, U.S. Congress passed a law that any further public disclosures of the disturbing images would “endanger American soldiers.”
Judge Hellerstein disagreed again on September 29, 2005 in another order that the documents and photos be redacted and produced under the FOIA. The judge’s argument was that the photos had already been used in the criminal trials of Lynddie England and Charles Graner, both who served time for abuses and torture of Iraq detainees at Abu Ghraib prison. Judge Hellerstein held that the U.S. Department of Defense cannot use the same photos and documents to prosecute and then argue that the same photos endanger Americans.
ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer Said in a news Release: “The Obama Administration’s rationale for suppressing the photos is both illegitimate and dangerous.”
After the 10 year delay of stalling intentionally, Judge Hellerstein issued his final ruling on March 6, 2015. In his ruling, he stated:
The Government’s refusal to individual certifications means that the 2012 Certification remains invalid and therefore cannot exempt the Government from responding to Plaintiffs FOIA requests,” the judge wrote in his court order on Friday. Hellerstein said it appeared the government was looking to seriously delay the process thereby “tending to defeat FOIA’s purpose of prompt disclosure.”
The timing of this ruling is impeccable while we negotiate with Iran and Republicans beat the war drums. Photos have never stopped or prevented wars before so the chance of that happening here is slim. It may make some constituents take enough umbrage with their Congressman and Senator to put some pressure on them to back off on war-mongering. The torture photos could also raise public awareness in contrast to those who deny these atrocities took place.
Most likely, what will happen upon the release of the torture photos is what always happens with Americans; not much. Apathy has taken hold over the nation’s Electorate more than ever before. There’s an atrocity, we all react, then there’s another atrocity that takes it’s place, and we forget all about the previous one. And Kim Kardashian got a haircut? ZOMFG!
Still, the public has a right to this information, as graphic as it is, for transparency purposes and to be completely honest with our example of a democratic superpower. The purpose should not be to tarnish our past, but to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. A healthy society continues moving forward and keeps justice sacred, especially if we are trying to spread democracy.
Dick Cheney’s famous line “We tortured and I would do it again” along with George W. Bush’s denial that torture was used should blow up in their faces if there is any justice. But then, that’s the question here isn’t it?