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Secretary Gates Says Americans Should Not See Torture Photos

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November 16, 2009

Late Friday night, the government filed a brief in which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates purportedly invoked his authority to block the release of photos depicting the abuse of detainees in U.S. custody overseas. The development came in our five-year-old lawsuit for the release of records, including photographs, related to the abuse of prisoners. Secretary Gates was granted the authority to exempt certain images from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as part of the Homeland Security appropriations bill signed by President Obama last month.

An amendment to the bill grants the Secretary of Defense the authority to suppress certain photographs deemed harmful to national security. After the bill was signed into law, we urged Secretary Gates’ not to invoke the authority to block the release of the photos. Unfortunately, not only did Secretary Gates invoke the authority, but his blanket certification states that it applies to all of the photos, failing to provide the individualized assessment that the amendment’s language requires. The government also failed to provide any basis for the claim that disclosure of the photos would harm national security. We plan to file a responsive brief.

As Adam Serwer pointed out in Tapped this morning:

What suppressing the photos probably also does is help prevent the kind of widespread public reaction to torture that we saw following the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. It’s one thing to hear about torture in the abstract, it’s another to see its effects visually. By suppressing the photographs, the White House is also circumventing potential criticism of its decision to seek as little accountability as possible for the behavior the pictures portray.

Alex Abdo, a legal fellow with the ACLU’s National Security Project stated in a press release

The government’s argument for suppression of the photos sets a dangerous precedent – that the government can conceal evidence of its own misconduct precisely because the evidence powerfully documents gross abuses of power and of detainees. This principal is fundamentally anti-democratic. The American public has a right to see the evidence of crimes committed in their name.

Meaningful accountability is impossible without transparency. Learn more about the ACLU’s accountability initiative, and take action today at www.aclu.org/accountability.

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