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Detainee Abuse Photos: Fighting for Transparency and Accountability

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July 21, 2011

Yesterday in federal district court in Manhattan, we appeared for the latest round in our long fight for the release of information about the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody in facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. This time, we were arguing against the government’s suppression of over 2,000 photographs depicting the abuse of detainees. In the face of the government’s claim that it could withhold the photographs from the public without any judicial review, we argued that the core principles of transparency and accountability embodied in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) required the court to review the government’s decision. Unfortunately, the judge ruled against us.

Earlier in the case, we prevailed on the argument that the photos, as direct evidence of government misconduct, had to be released under FOIA. But then in 2009, Congress passed an exception to the FOIA law exempting certain photographs of detainees taken during President Bush’s term in office if the Secretary of Defense certified that their release would endanger Americans. The Defense Secretary did so, keeping secret over 2,000 photographs of detainee abuse. But he did not provide any descriptions of the photographs or explain how releasing them would endanger U.S. individuals. Yesterday, the court decided that the Defense Secretary’s certification of harm — without any explanation — was enough.

Our democracy is not made stronger by the suppression of evidence of gross governmental misconduct. If released, the photographs would provide undeniable evidence of widespread abuse of detainees — abuse that occurred in any number of detention facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, the photographs would directly contradict the narrative advanced by both the Bush and Obama administrations that the abuse of detainees was isolated and aberrational. And the photographs would raise questions about the responsibility of senior officials for the mistreatment of detainees, questions that have yet to be seriously examined by any prosecutor.

As disturbing as the contents of the images might be, it is critical that the American people know the full truth about the abuse that occurred in our name.

Coming up on August 1 in the same courtroom is the next round in this long-running FOIA fight — oral arguments on our motion to hold the CIA in contempt of court for destroying videotapes depicting the torture of two detainees. Throughout all of these proceedings, the same idea holds true: transparency and accountability are the best deterrents to future abuse and the only way to repair the damage done to America’s standing in the world by these abhorrent acts.

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