by Xinhua writer Yang Qingchuan
WASHINGTON, May 15 (Xinhua) -- Reversing his earlier
position, U.S. President Barack Obama said this week that he will block the
court-mandated release of hundreds of photos that show past U.S. abuse of
prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq.
White House lawyers are reportedly making
preparations for a legal fight at the Supreme Court.
Obama's change of mind came after a careful
calculation of political situation, primarily aimed to prevent the sensational
story of abuse photo from distracting his major domestic and foreign policy
However, the new attitude risks alienating some from
his own political base.
Moreover, it also points to the complexity of the
issue of prisoner abuse and an ethic dilemma for U.S. anti-terror policy which
has no easy solutions, observers said.
The issue of prisoner abuse photos is a George W.
Bush-era legacy but its fallout is far from being over.
In 2004, media release of photos that depicted U.S.
soldiers' abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prisoner infuriated the
international community, becoming an icon of the ethic deficit of the U.S.-led
war "war on terror."
Since then, the American Civil Liberty Union, or
ACLU, a leading U.S. civil rights group, has been pressing federal courts to
order the U.S. government to release abuse photos.
In 2006, a federal judge in New York ruled in favor
of ACLU and ordered the release of photos.
A federal appeals court upheld the decision last
September and refused to rehear the case in March.
Then on April 24, the Department of Defense under the
new administration said it will comply with the court ruling and release
hundreds of abuse photos by May 28.
At the time, the White House said it won't seek to
appeal the case.
However, Obama told his legal team last week that he
had changed his mind and asked them to prepare documents trying to block the
release of the abuse photos.
The president made a statement about his new position
On surface, Obama made two points in explaining the
First, after consulting with top generals on the
front-line and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, his conclusion is that the
release of the photos will "further inflame anti-American opinion" in Iraq and
Afghanistan and thus put nearly 200,000 U.S. troops in those places in "greater
Secondly, he said the photos wouldn't provide
additional knowledge of the issue, and may even cause a "chilling effect" to the
ongoing investigation of those past abuses.
However, legal experts said the two reasons are not
new and not adequate.
Stephen Yeazell, a top scholar on civil litigation
rules, said federal courts have already rejected both arguments.
In September 2008, a federal appeals court in New
York ruled that it is "plainly insufficient" for the government to claim that
releasing such photos "could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified
member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops."
It also said the government's argument that releasing
those photos would not add any additional benefit to the investigation of abuse
"disregards" laws which require governmental accountability.
Experts said without raising new arguments, the
government faces an uphill battle in the Supreme Court.
Observers said as a well-trained lawyer himself,
Obama clearly knows the chance of winning an appeal at a higher court is slim.
But obviously he made the decision after assessing
political pros and cons.
As the Los Angeles Times put, it may be risky, but
One unspoken reason for his reversal of position is
that the issue popped up at a crucial juncture for Obama's policy returning
toward the Muslim world, with his upcoming key speech on U.S.-Muslim relations
to be made in Egypt on June 4.
The pictures' release before May 28 according to
federal court's order, in the new administration's opinion, could have negated
the significance of the speech and put the president in an embarrassing
But a more profound reason may be a fear of stirring
up a consuming bipartisan war which could endanger the president's major policy
Obama clearly learned the lessons from last month's
release of memos which showed the Bush administration authorized harsh
interrogation techniques on terror suspects.
The president supported the release, but soon found
things slipping out of his hand.
Right groups and the left wing of the Democratic
Party used the memos to make their case for prosecution of top Bush-era
Republicans fought back, accusing Nancy Pelosi and
other leading Democrats were also implicated in the authorizing those
Former Vice President Dick Cheney seized the
opportunity to launch a media offensive against the Obama administration's
national security policy and urged Republicans to take a tougher stand with the
Obama saw the danger of an all-out bipartisan fight
and tried to cool things down.
His reversal on abuse photos were welcomed by ranking
Republicans, including his foe in last year's presidential election, John
It's still unclear whether Obama will succeed in
putting a lid on the abuse photo controversy and the larger torture-related
But a comparison between his position on those issues
during presidential campaign and his related policies as president, will find a
number of gaps.
The profound reason goes beyond his political
calculations and points to a long-term puzzle in U.S. anti-terror policy.
It's hard for anyone to argue that the decay of U.S.
international image over past several years has a lot to do with its
controversial policies during "war on terror," including the abuse photos, CIA's
"black prisons" and renditions, and Guantanamo.
Obama has promised to fix the moral deficit and "make
In his first business day in office, he signed
directives to close the Guantanamo prison within one year and called for
overhauling the Bush-era system of treating terror suspects.
However, the president soon found it will be very
hard for him to make a complete break from old practices.
Under the new administration, the practice of
transferring terror suspects between countries is continued and detainees are
still being held indefinitely in Afghanistan.
Moreover, On Friday, May 15, Obama announced that he
has decided to reinstate Bush-era military tribunals to try some of detainees
held at the Guantanamo prison.
There is nothing wrong for the administration to make
decisions which it believes is best for its own country.
However, it may be an illusion to believe or claim
all U.S. policies will become correct both politically and morally.
The "ethnic deficit" in U.S. anti-terror policies can
be reduced, but will be hard to be eliminated. That's a long-term