President Obama changed his mind today. Thank goodness. After weighing his commitment to less secrecy and greater openness in government against the safety of American troops overseas, he sided with the soldiers. That meant ordering the Pentagon not to release as planned hundreds of photos which supposedly document American abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005. It was a tough call, his aides said. But it was also, of course, a quintessentially political one. Obama does not want to be blamed for exposing our war-fighters to even greater jeopardy than they already face.
At least the president was brave enough to announce the news himself. Then he sent his press secretary out to calm not the outraged masses, but the American Civil Liberties Union, whose director, Anthony D. Romero accused Obama of making a "mockery" of his promise of greater transparency and accountability in government. Romero also asserted that Obama's reversal of his earlier stance was an "adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration."
Amrit Singh, an attorney with the ACLU, went further. She said the reversal made Obama "complicit in the Bush administration's torture policies."
The release of the photos, she argued, was "absolutely essential…for ensuring that that the public could hold its government accountable" and that "torture is not conducted in the future in the name of the American people."
Really? Does Ms. Singh honestly believe that President Obama will now condone the practices he has denounced and ended as one of his first actions as commander in chief? Does he think that Americans do not know by now that the United States tortured and humiliated prisoners in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
FOX News reported that Obama reversed course after his top generals, including Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, warned that his earlier decision to release the photos would put American forces at greater risk. Obama concluded, as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs explained, that it would "sensationalize" rather than "illuminate" Abu Ghraib-like abuses for which nine soldiers have already been found guilty.
Such abuses are not only morally wrong and anathema to American values and traditions, they have been a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda and like-minded extremists. The iconic photo of the hooded Iraqi prisoner with wires attached to hands, standing on box at Abu Ghraib appears on scores of Islamic extremist Web sites and on posters lining streets and alleys throughout the Middle East.
Every nation makes mistakes, often terrible ones. But at least President Obama has not tried to deny or explain them away. Neither, however, does he wish to be blamed for provoking rage that might result in more American deaths, or engage in sustained self-flagellation that risks emboldening and encouraging Al Qaeda and other enemies. The war against terrorism continues, no matter what the Obama administration chooses to call it.
If the ACLU is truly interested in helping us understand what kind of abuses have been committed in our names, it should promote the creation of a 9/11-like, non-partisan, independent commission to explore the extent of such abuses under the Bush administration and how they occurred. Releasing hundreds more photos of prisoner abuse, devoid of such context, will not help educate Americans. We already have more than enough pictures to evoke national shame.