Pentagon cites ISIL threat for withholding prisoner abuse photos

More than 2,000 photos of abuse, including torture and rape, date back to early years of Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

The Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, one of the sites where inmates were abused by US military personnel. US Army / AFP / May 5, 2004
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NEW YORK // The Pentagon has said it is not releasing decade-old photos showing abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq because they could be used by ISIL to incite “lone wolf” attacks in the west and endanger US military personnel.

Making the photos public “would facilitate the enemy’s ability to conduct information operations and could be used to increase anti-American sentiment,” the Pentagon said in a filing submitted to a federal court in Manhattan last Friday.

The more than 2,100 photo were taken at several US bases following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and reportedly depict, among other abuses, the rape of women and a minor boy.

George W Bush’s administration blocked the release of the photos in 2004, and both the Bush and Obama administrations have used a variety of legal means to keep them hidden.

A law passed in 2009 allows the photos to be withheld for three years if the secretary of defence certifies that their release would harm Americans.

The last certification was made in 2012 by the then defence secretary Leon Panetta.

But in October, Alvin Hellerstein, the federal judge hearing the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2004, ordered the Pentagon to give a photo-by-photo rationale for keeping the images secret.

The Pentagon court filing, however, did not offer an individualised justification. Instead, Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris, vice director of operations for the joint staff at the Pentagon, said he “reviewed a representative sample of the photographs” and concluded that their release “in part or whole” would endanger US military personnel.

Rear Adm Harris said the danger had been heightened because of the deployment of about 3,000 US forces back to Iraq by late January to help a patchwork of Iraqi forces fight ISIL. The extremist group, in response, has called on supporters to attack “US personnel and interests both abroad and within … the United States”, he said.

In particular, the images would fuel ISIL’s slick online propaganda that Rear Adm Harris said had inspired a number of thwarted plots in the UK and Australia, as well as recent attacks in Canada that killed service members.

“The photographs are susceptible to use as propaganda to incite a public reaction and could be used as recruiting material to attract new members,” he said in the court filing, citing recent postings to militant online forums and quoting at length an article by a former detainee in Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language online magazine.

Transparency advocates argue that the abuse of detainees a decade ago is already well known and documented, and that ISIL and its supporters need little additional motivation to try and attack US targets.

They pointed to the release this month of the scathing redacted summary of a senate report on the CIA’s torture of suspected militants, which failed to draw a strong reaction in Arab and Muslim countries.

Critics also say that blocking the photos due to threats of violence gives the militants undue influence in the domestic debate about US government transparency on the torture and widespread abuse of detainees between 2001 and 2009.

Without a public reckoning of what happened, and holding those responsible to account, they say, Mr Obama’s 2009 executive action ordering an end to brutal detention and interrogation practices could be undone by a future president, and further erode US credibility and fuel anger.

“Now is the time when greater transparency is needed, not continued obfuscation,” said Alex Abdo, a lawyer for ACLU.

The justification is “in tension with President Obama’s recent statement that Sony should not have given in to pressure from whoever hacked its system and that that amounts to a veto on our First Amendment rights”, said Mr Abdo.

“In the exact same way, we give in to a terrorist veto when we censor photographs of grave governmental misconduct based on how our enemies might use that evidence.”

The ACLU will file a response to the Pentagon justification on January 9. Judge Hellerstein will then meet with both parties on January 20, when he may issue a ruling.

“We don’t think their showing satisfies the standards set out by the court and that’s what we’ll be arguing,” Mr Abdo said.