Thursday, May 14, 2009

Obama and the Photos

The president has backtracked on releasing torture photos.

A month after making public once-classified Justice Department memos detailing the Bush administration’s coercive methods of interrogation, President Obama yesterday chose secrecy over disclosure, saying he would seek to block the court-ordered release of photographs depicting the abuse of detainees held by U.S. authorities abroad.

Obama agreed less than three weeks ago not to oppose the photos’ release but changed his mind after viewing some of the images and hearing warnings from his generals in Iraq and Afghanistan that such a move would endanger U.S. troops deployed there.

“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals,” Obama said yesterday. “In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in danger.”

Civil liberties and human rights advocates said the reversal would serve to maintain the Bush administration’s legacy of secrecy. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said Obama’s shift was “deeply disappointing.”

I’m not too crazy about this switch, either, but it’s not the change of mind that bothers me; it’s the hauling out of the “putting our troops in danger” line that the White House is using to make the case. That too has the whiff of the Bush administration. I didn’t buy it then and I’m not buying it now.

It’s not like anti-American opinion hasn’t already been inflamed, and frankly, I don’t think that should be the benchmark of what guides our actions in making the decision about whether or not to release them. Failing to do so implies more of a cover-up, not protecting our troops. Besides, we’re a big country; we can take the additional heat in the name of full disclosure. I doubt the troops like being used as a cover; they got quite enough of that from the Bushies.

I get the political motivation behind this, too — oh, gee, you think? The president knows that the chances are the court will order the release of the photos over his objections and therefore when they get splashed across the media and the web and they become ingrained in our consciousness like the ones from Abu Ghraib, the White House can put some distance between themselves and the outrage by saying, “Hey, we didn’t want them out there, but the court made us do it.” And I’m sure there’s also the calculation that this was a carefully-chosen moment for the president to show that he can buck the liberals and show that he’s willing to take the heat from the left and stand on “principle” for the sake of making the point that he’s not in the thrall of the progressives… like that ship hasn’t already sailed (see Obama, stand on same-sex marriage).

Frankly, I could care less about political motives; it’s about doing what’s right and living up to the pledge of being transparent.