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Obama moves to prevent release of detainee photos

The images of alleged abuse could turn more against America and endanger U.S. troops, he says. Liberal advocacy groups denounce the move.

May 14, 2009|Peter Wallsten and Janet Hook

WASHINGTON — President Obama's decision Wednesday to try to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting alleged abuse of detainees by U.S. soldiers sets him on a confrontational course with his liberal base. But it is a showdown he is willing to risk -- and may even view as politically necessary.

The president's reversal comes just three weeks after his administration agreed to release the images. The move enraged advocacy groups, which swiftly accused Obama of violating his promises of openness and of parroting justifications for secrecy that had been argued by the Bush administration and rejected by courts.

But in following the advice of military leaders, who had expressed fears of a backlash in the Middle East if the pictures were released, Obama now can tell critics on the right that he did his best to protect the nation's troops, even if the courts eventually force the disclosure.

Obama has been facing intense criticism from former Vice President Dick Cheney and other conservatives, who have argued that the new administration's efforts to roll back Bush-era interrogation policies have made the country less safe.

The praise for Obama that came Wednesday from Republicans such as House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina can only help undercut those arguments.

"He's realized the difference between being a candidate and being commander in chief," said Graham, who wrote to Obama last week asking him not to release the photos.

Even if the administration loses its bid in court and the photos are released, Graham added, "it's good for the troops to know their commander in chief went to bat for them."

The release would make public for the first time photos obtained in military investigations at facilities other than the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Forty-four photos that the American Civil Liberties Union was seeking in a court case, plus a "substantial number" of other images, were to be released by May 28 under an agreement reached with the administration last month.

The photos, examined by Air Force and Army criminal investigators, reportedly are less disturbing than the Abu Ghraib images released in 2004 that stoked anti-American sentiment around the world. And after personally reviewing them, Obama on Wednesday described them as "not particularly sensational."

But military officials had expressed concerns that they could spark a backlash in the Muslim world. Obama is scheduled go to Egypt next month to address Muslims in a much-anticipated speech.

His reversal on the photo issue marked his latest attempt to navigate the tumultuous political waters engulfing the Bush administration's interrogation techniques and broader anti-terrorism policies. Liberal groups want a full investigation, as well as possible prosecution of officials who authorized torture of detainees. Obama has acknowledged that torture took place, and he took the unusual step last month of releasing Justice Department memos detailing the harsh interrogation tactics -- but he has resisted prosecutions.

On Wednesday, Obama seemed determined to directly challenge some of the fundamental claims of his own base.

Civil liberties groups have said the photos would prove that abuse of detainees was systemic and not just the work of a few rogue soldiers.

Obama, however, said Wednesday that publishing the pictures "would not add any additional benefit" to the country's understanding of "what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals."

"In fact," he added, "the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger."

It was unclear Wednesday how officials would proceed, but it appeared likely that the matter would be decided in the Supreme Court, because two lower federal courts have ordered that the pictures be released.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the national security argument the administration intended to make in court -- that releasing the photographs could create a backlash -- was "one that hasn't been made before."

But, in fact, that issue was raised and rejected by a federal district court judge and the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which called the warnings of a backlash "clearly speculative" and insufficient to warrant blocking disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

"There's no legal basis for withholding the photographs," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, "so this must be a political decision."

Liberal groups said Wednesday that they intended to keep up the pressure on Obama. The ACLU is seeking many more documents, including memos laying out Bush-era tactics and transcripts of destroyed videotapes depicting harsh interrogation techniques.

Obama's dilemma is that he risks undermining one of the core principles he claimed for his presidency: transparency.

Lucy Dalglish, director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which joined the ACLU in seeking release of the photos, said she was "astonished" that Obama's lawyers would "find themselves in front of the Supreme Court fighting a FOIA request as one of the first major tasks they go to litigate." She said FOIA cases are rare at that level, and risky because "they don't often go well."

One senior Democratic aide, who requested anonymity when discussing White House decisions, assessed Obama's dilemma this way: "He's always trying to straddle these difficult questions. You make promises because that's what the public wants. But it's a lot different to promise than do it."

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Peter Nicholas in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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