Federal judge hesitant to release Abu Ghraib photos

Saturday, September 10, 2005

NEW YORK — A judge last week said he was hesitant to release pictures and videotapes of detainee abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison while top government officials insisted that deaths could result.

U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein commented on Aug. 30 as he listened to Manhattan’s top government lawyer and an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which was seeking release of the pictures.

In June, Hellerstein ordered the release of redacted versions of the photos and videos. The government then filed documents expressing concern that releasing the images would pose a safety threat.

During last week’s hearing, the judge questioned whether he could disregard arguments by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has warned that releasing the photos would aid al-Qaida recruitment, weaken the Afghan and Iraqi governments and incite riots against U.S. troops.

“How can I ignore the expert opinion of General Myers, who is concerned with the safety of his troops?” the judge asked. “I can’t substitute my opinion for the opinion of General Myers.”

He said troops in Iraq “face danger every day and don’t deserve to have that danger enlarged.”

The ACLU has sought the release of 87 photographs and four videotapes taken at the prison. The request was part of a 2004 lawsuit demanding information on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody and the transfer of prisoners to countries known to use torture. The ACLU contends prisoner abuse is systemic.

The judge on Aug. 30 reduced the number of photographs at issue to 74 and the number of videos to three, saying those he excluded would have required redactions so great as to render them inconsequential. He said the pictures and videos involve a limited number of soldiers engaging in acts that were “distasteful to an extreme degree.”

The judge said he recognized the pictures might be useful to the public as it answers questions about the prison scandal, including whether those in command knew about the abuse and how extensive it was.

Yet, he said, there was a “high prurient value” in the pictures.

“A judge cannot look at these without thinking to himself how quickly they’d be put on the 6 o’clock or 11 o’clock news and how easily they could be subverted to create a false picture of this country,” he said.

U.S. Attorney David Kelley told the judge that insurgents and propagandists in Afghanistan and Iraq would claim that a judge’s order to release the pictures was a “deliberate war act” by the U.S.

He said insurgents who already are increasing the deadliness of their attacks would claim that more pictures were being released to “rub the noses of the Muslim world” in what had happened.

ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh argued that release of the pictures was necessary for the public to assess the scope of the abuse and whether it could have been carried out without the knowledge of military leaders.

The judge did not say when he would rule, but he has indicated that a speedy decision is important so the public’s right to know is not compromised.

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