NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · NEW YORK · Freedom of Information · Sep. 30, 2005
Judge orders release of Abu Ghraib photos
Sep. 30, 2005 · A federal judge in New York City ordered the release of the controversial photos depicting detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison Thursday, ruling that the public’s right to see the photos trumps the government’s desire to shroud the information.
Rejecting the government’s arguments that releasing the images might incite violence against U.S. troops or perpetuate further terrorism, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein called the photos the “best evidence” of what occurred at the U.S.-run prison near Baghdad. He ordered their release under the Freedom of Information Act, discussing their relevance in the ongoing war on terror.
“Our struggle to prevail must be without sacrificing the transparency and accountability of government and military officials,” he wrote. “These are the values FOIA was intended to advance, and they are at the very heart of the values for which we fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The photos are part of a larger group of images that military police officer Joseph Darby turned over to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division in 2004. The American Civil Liberties Union requested the photos under the FOI Act in conjunction with an October 2003 lawsuit in which it sought information on prisoner abuse. The Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency released some photos, but withheld others, citing privacy and law enforcement-related exemptions to the FOI Act.
ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero, in a statement, called the ruling “a step toward ensuring that our government’s leaders are held accountable for the abuse and torture that happened on their watch. . . . The American public has a right to know what happened in American detention centers, and how our leaders let it occur.” ACLU attorney Amrit Singh argued the case before the court.
The court ruled that concerns over how the public might use the photographs to further terrorist acts or as propaganda of the attitudes of all Americans does not justify their suppression. It also rejected the government’s contentions that to release the remaining photographs would invade the detainees’ personal privacy, agreeing with the ACLU that to “inform and educate the public, and to spark debate about the causes and forces that led to the breakdown of command discipline at Abu Ghraib” are the “very purposes that FOIA is intended to advance.”
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in August objecting that the government raised the law enforcement exemption claim too late — more than two months after arguments on the release of the photos — and that it was being improperly invoked to hide evidence of misconduct. Although the court decided to consider the government’s claims, it ultimately determined they do not bar the photos from being released. The government is expected to appeal.
(American Civil Liberties Union v. Department of Defense; Requester’s Counsel: Amrit Singh, ACLU, New York) — CZ