Obama's reversal on abuse photos implies
puzzle in U.S. anti-terror policy
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 initiatives.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 position.
But a more profound reason may be a fear of stirring up a
consuming bipartisan war which could endanger the
president's major policy agenda.
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
Republicans fought back, accusing Nancy Pelosi and other
leading Democrats were also implicated in the authorizing
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 administration.
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 McCain.
It's still unclear whether Obama will succeed in putting a
lid on the abuse photo controversy and the larger
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
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
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