The Torture Photos We’re Not Supposed To See

16.5.09

Below are three photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, from the website of the Sydney Morning Herald, which made them available in 2006, and from Britain’s Daily Telegraph. The photos relate to President Obama’s recent decision to back down, at the last minute, from a promise to comply with a court order demanding the release, by May 28, of 44 photos of the abuse of prisoners in various locations in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the Guardian noted last month, the photos confirm that “abuse was much more widespread than the US has so far been prepared to admit,” and even though these photos are not thought to be part of the 44 photos in question, it is believed that they constitute part of the 2,000 photos that the government was also “processing for release” at the time, according to the Justice Department.

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Announcing his decision, Obama said that the photos in question were “not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib.” This may be so, but we will never know if they are not made available, and in any case, as the Daily Telegraph reported, the photographs “reportedly show military guards threatening to sexually assault a detainee with a broomstick and hooded prisoners on transport planes with Playboy magazines opened to pictures of nude women on their laps,” which, though not as vile as the Abu Ghraib photos, could certainly be regarded as “sensational.”

Obama’s main point, however, was spelled out when he added that “the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”

In response, Anthony D. Romero, the President of the ACLU, which has been campaigning since 2003 for the release of the photos, made the following statement:

The Obama administration’s adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president’s stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government. This decision is particularly disturbing given the Justice Department’s failure to initiate a criminal investigation of torture crimes under the Bush administration.

It is true that these photos would be disturbing; the day we are no longer disturbed by such repugnant acts would be a sad one. In America, every fact and document gets known — whether now or years from now. And when these photos do see the light of day, the outrage will focus not only on the commission of torture by the Bush administration but on the Obama administration’s complicity in covering them up. Any outrage related to these photos should be due not to their release but to the very crimes depicted in them. Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated.

If the Obama administration continues down this path, it will betray not only its promises to the American people, but its commitment to this nation’s most fundamental principles. President Obama has said we should turn the page, but we cannot do that until we fully learn how this nation veered down the path of criminality and immorality, who allowed that to happen and whose lives were mutilated as a result. Releasing these photos — as painful as it might be — is a critical step toward that accounting. The American people deserve no less.

Both sides, I believe, have a point, but in reviewing whether or not to post these particular images, I decided that it was worth publishing them for three reasons:

1: As a reminder of what happens when military personnel, who are trained to obey orders, are ordered to disregard the Geneva Conventions and to indulge in sadistic behavior as part of their instructions to “soften up the detainees” for interrogation.

2: As a reminder that the acts depicted were not the rogue activities of “a few bad apples” (as Bush administration officials maintained, and as President Obama also attempted to claim, when he said that “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”), but were part of a deliberate policy, inspired by the US military’s SERE program and authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration — and, in particular by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — in which the use of torture and abuse as part of the Standard Operating Procedure was authorized in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantánamo. The photos I have chosen — featuring nudity, sexual humiliation, hooding, painful shackling and the use of dogs to terrify detainees — are typical of the techniques used widely in the “War on Terror.”

3: As a reminder that, although Barack Obama pledged, in an Executive Order issued on his second day in office, that the questioning of prisoners by any US government agency must follow the interrogation guidelines laid down in the Army Field Manual, which guarantees humane treatment under the Geneva Conventions, his government has appealed a ruling by Judge John D. Bates, granting habeas corpus rights to foreign prisoners subjected to “extraordinary rendition” and held in the US-run prison in Bagram, Afghanistan.

The administration’s determination to maintain a regime of total secrecy at Bagram does nothing to convince me that, beyond his rhetoric about embracing the Geneva Conventions, Obama has actually insisted that Donald Rumsfeld’s brutal innovations are thoroughly repudiated, that prisoners seized in wartime will genuinely be protected once more by the Geneva Conventions, and that copies of the Geneva Conventions will be prominently displayed in any interrogation setting, as they were before the Bush administration began its journey to the “Dark Side.”

For more on the story, see Documents Describe Prisoner Abuse Photos Obama is Withholding on The Public Record, and for extensive galleries of previously released photos, see two articles at Salon, here and here.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.

For other articles on Abu Ghraib, see: Remember Abu Ghraib? (a review of Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth), Former US interrogator Damien Corsetti recalls the torture of prisoners in Bagram and Abu Ghraib (December 2007), Film Review: Standard Operating Procedure (a review of Errol Morris’ challenging documentary about the scandal) (July 2008), In the Guardian: The 5th anniversary of the Abu Ghraib scandal (April 2009).

For other articles on Iraq, see: Book Review: Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía (January 2008), Iraq’s refugees in Syria: Mike Otterman reports (February 2008), UK government deports 60 Iraqi Kurds; no one notices (March 2008), A History of Music Torture in the “War on Terror” (December 2008), The Ten Lies of Dick Cheney (Part Two) (December 2008), Refuting Cheney’s Lies: The Stories of Six Prisoners Released from Guantánamo (January 2009), Even In Cheney’s Bleak World, The Al-Qaeda-Iraq Torture Story Is A New Low (April 2009), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi Has Died In A Libyan Prison (May 2009), Dick Cheney And The Death Of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi (May 2009), Lawrence Wilkerson Nails Cheney On Use Of Torture To Invade Iraq (May 2009), Cheney’s Lies Undermined By Iraq Interrogator Matthew Alexander (May 2009).

7 Responses

  1. Frances Madeson says...

    Why, oh why, is President Obama being tarred with the deeds and intentions of the Bush administration? What if he’s just telling it like it is? Maybe there is a distinction between this round of photos and the first. In other words, maybe the first photos released by Bush were sensational, and deliberately so, even as Susan Sontag said at the time of their release, pornographic. And that the distribution (the media blitz a la Swiftboating) of specially curated violently pornographic images was done with a Madison Avenue intelligence and intention–to distract, titillate and de-sensitize (and sell certain ideas). Also, they knew that there were a lot of good people who would not even look at pornography, so they probably wouldn’t look at the Abu Grahib photos either. Whether the photos landed or didn’t land, they controlled their effect. Brilliant in a Dr. Evil kind of way, and then when followed up with the few bad apples defense, they got away with it. (Until now, but it’s not over, is it?)

    Even Susan Sontag, who we relied on to be pretty much all seeing, couldn’t see that. She bought into the ruse that Bush was trying to withhold the photos, when in fact, they wanted nothing more than to release their sick and perverted images and embed them in the American, make that worldwide, consciousness. With the effect that the prisoners would be dehumanized (the way that rape victims, whores and sex slaves are dehumanized) and tarred with the sex-victim taint. Right? Given a free choice, who will you identify with, the hazer or the hazee?

    I’m no anthropologist but I wouldn’t be surprised if this had a profound impact on the Muslim community with its traditions of honor crimes. Muslim passivity and inaction in mounting a rescue effort (in effect abandoning their brethren to George Bush and his dogs, shackles and broomsticks) has always struck me as one of the more curious and tragic aspects of this whole saga. Maybe part of the explanation lies in the shock, awe, shame, revulsion and distance caused by the first round of Abu Grahib photos. If so, it’s a pretty neat package, probably cooked up by some of those talented SERE psychologists.

    We need to put them out of commission too (along with the torture memo lawyers), strip them of their professional credentials at the very least, and see where they might fit in in the overall scheme of criminal prosecutions. That the SERE psychologists were co-conspirators seems evident to me.

  2. turning the page on tyranny « seeking spirit says...

    [...] the other hand, I recently opposed the release of certain photographs that were taken of detainees by U.S. personnel between 2002 and 2004. [...]

  3. My Message To Obama: Great Speech, But No Military Commissions and No “Preventive Detention” by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] doctrine, the release of the torture memos issued by the Office of Legal Counsel, and the decision not to release photos of abuse in US prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq — not because I have no interest in these issues, [...]

  4. Taylor'Paige says...

    i think that it is rank that people are doing this to prisoners, my brother has just came out and im glad he dint have to go to a big prison, coz looking at them photos, it made me sick to that some one whould do that to them, they look helpless, lifeless, would you like to walk naked in front of loads of people. ITS DISCUSTING,!!

  5. Happy 8th Birthday Gitmo: an interview with watchdog Andy Worthington « Pluto Press – Independent Progressive Publishing says...

    [...] was taking flak for releasing the torture memos and planning to release the photos of the abuse of prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. He capitulated, pure and [...]

  6. TheAZCowBoy says...

    Obama is being tarred because he has become ‘one of the boyze’ in the torture, murder and assassination of terrorists ‘suspects’ that have never had the opportunity to defend themselves against the US CIA low life Nazi’s’. He should do the ‘honorable’ thing and return that Nobel Peace prize to the Oslo people and then turn himslf, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and Wolfowitz to the ICC for a fast but thourage trial and faster yet hanging. It’s not that Obama is a low life murderous ghoul – It’s that he can’t stay away from them and let’s them set his ‘genocidal’ policies.

  7. TheAZCowBoy says...

    Interesting that the so-called torture photos show ‘litle] games of tag and (((snuggling))) under threat by US soldiersamong the prisoners. The photos I saw showed a father foricibly (at gun point) being made to sodomize his 14 year old son. An Iraqi woman with a baton stuck in her vigina. Another Iraqi woman being forced top perform fellatio on several GI’s who were laughing and pinching her breats and vigina. Yassar, the ‘real’ torture photos will never be shown because it reduces the US military to a bunch of Pol Plot assassins and low life bastards. It’s no wonder that these bastards come home, claim (or are diagnosed) to having PTSD and finally go into the basement of their mothers home and hangs himself with an electrical cord – as one deranged GI did. Major Hassan ‘truly’ did justice in blowing away some of this human scum that were admitting the horrendous atrocites they had committed on innocent Muslim men, women, children and even infants – as he debriefed them. At Fort Hood, Major Hassan the post psychiatrist advised the US Army that what these bastards needed was a court martial and not therapy. The Army laughed at him and refused to heed his advise and the rest is histrory…..Bam-Bam-Bam, ahhhhhh, finally ‘the fat lady sings!’

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