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Detainee-abuse photos and democracy

Pending legislation that allows the pictures to be kept secret would grant the government broad authority to evade accountability now and in the future.

October 20, 2009|Jameel Jaffer | Jameel Jaffer is the director of the ACLU National Security Project.

In the end, however, the fact that the secretary could select which images to release and which to suppress may only deepen the proposed legislation's invidiousness. Consider the possibility that the secretary, invoking his authority under new legislation, withholds half of the prisoner-abuse photos. How should we interpret the photos that are disclosed? What conclusions can we fairly draw about the kinds of abuses that were inflicted on prisoners, or the Defense Department's responsibility for that abuse, when the secretary of Defense has chosen which images the public is entitled to see? The legislation almost certainly will deprive us of information we would otherwise have had access to, but its even more nefarious effect will be to corrode the integrity of the information we can still obtain.

Supporters of the legislation have said that the bill is motivated by concerns about security, but no democracy has ever been made stronger by concealing evidence of its wrongdoing. The last administration's decision to endorse torture undermined the United States' moral authority and compromised its security. The failure of the country's current leadership to fully confront the abuses of the last administration -- a failure embodied by the legislation that Congress is preparing to enact -- will only compound these harms.

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