In today’s White House press briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was bombarded by questions from reporters about the Obama administration’s decision not to release dozens of photos showing the abuse of detainees by U.S. military personnel. Gibbs argued that releasing the photos would “provide a disincentive for detainee abuse investigation”; people would be afraid to take the photos if they knew they were going to be released. He called the release of the photos “sensationalistic”:
GIBBS: The disincentive is in the notion that every time one of these photos is taken, that it’s going to be released — that nothing is added by the release of the photo, right? The existence of the investigation is not increased because of the release of the photo. It’s just to provide, in some ways, a sensationalistic portion of that investigation. […]
But the — I think if every time somebody took a picture of detainee abuse, if every time that — if any time any of those pictures were mandatorily going to be necessarily released, despite the fact that they were being investigated, I think that would provide a disincentive to take those pictures and investigate.
The real disincentive caused from the release of the photos is that it will hopefully caution U.S. officials from ever engaging in torture again. As the ACLU’s Amrit Singh explained, the photographs are “critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.”
On April 23, the Justice Department said that it would release the 44 photos as part of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU. At the press briefing the next day, Gibbs made clear that the Obama administration believed it was legally bound to take this action:
GIBBS: The Second Circuit Court ruled in December of 2008 that the photos had to be released. The previous administration lost a court case on that. The Department of Justice decided based on the ruling that it was hopeless to appeal, and a mandate ordering the release of those photos came Monday. And the administration, the Pentagon, and the court entered into an agreement to release those photos.
Additionally, Obama reportedly decided not to release the photos because he was concerned that it would put U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan in danger of reprisal. But in April, a Pentagon spokesman told the New York Times that while officials were “still concerned that release of the pictures could make the military’s mission more difficult, that consideration was less pressing now, given that Iraq is more stable than it was two or three years ago.”
GIBBS: I think they have. But I would also say the president believes a couple of other things. Understand that the existence of these investigations are — I don’t know the exact address, but they’re on the DOD Web site. The president believes that the release of these photos will also provide a disincentive for detainee abuse investigation.
The photos don’t denote the existence of the investigations. They’re simply part of the potential evidence in the cases that have been finished since 2004.
But if in each of these instances somebody looking into detainee abuse takes evidentiary photos in a case that’s — that’s eventually concluded, that this could provide a tremendous disincentive to take those photos and investigate that abuse.
I would also add, lastly —
QUESTION: Try — try that once again. I don’t follow you. What’s the — where’s the disincentive?
GIBBS: The disincentive is in the notion that every time one of these photos is taken, that it’s going to be released — that nothing is added by the release of the photo, right? The existence of the investigation is not increased because of the release of the photo. It’s just to provide, in some ways, a sensationalistic portion of that investigation.
These are all investigations that were undertaken by the Pentagon and have been concluded. But the — I think if every time somebody took a picture of detainee abuse, if every time that — if any time any of those pictures were mandatorily going to be necessarily released, despite the fact that they were being investigated, I think that would provide a disincentive to take those pictures and investigate.
Today, Obama reiterated his concern that the photos might endanger U.S. troops serving abroad and have a “chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.” Unlike Gibbs, Obama said that there was nothing sensational about the photos: “I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib. But they do represent conduct that did not conform with the Army Manual. That’s precisely why they were investigated, and I might add — investigated long before I took office.”