President Obama said today in a speech on the Guantanamo Bay detainees and national security that he remains committed to transparency in government despite his recent about-face on the release of photos documenting torture.
After discussing the decision to release the controversial Office of Legal Counsel opinions on torture, Obama spoke about the photos taken of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004.
“Individuals who violated standards of behavior in these photos have been investigated and held accountable,” Obama said, according to the prepared text of his remarks.
“There is no debate as to whether what is reflected in those photos is wrong, and nothing has been concealed to absolve perpetrators of crimes. However, it was my judgment — informed by my national security team — that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion, and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, endangering them in theaters of war,” he continued.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued for the release of the photos under the Freedom of Information Act and won both at the trial court and at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan (2nd Cir.). The Reporters Committee filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the ACLU throughout the case.
Obama had initially agreed not to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, but now the administration says it may.
“In short, there is a clear and compelling reason to not release these particular photos," Obama said. "There are nearly 200,000 Americans who are serving in harm’s way, and I have a solemn responsibility for their safety as Commander-in-Chief. Nothing would be gained by the release of these photos that matters more than the lives of our young men and women serving in harm’s way."
The Justice Department has until June 9 to decide whether to make those arguments to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Senate is considering a bill that would prohibit the release of the photos without the Court having to weigh in.
The legislative measure, sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I.-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.), is an amendment to the supplemental budget appropriations bill now on the Senate floor. Under the proposal, any photo taken after Sept. 11, 2001, of people captured by the armed forces could be withheld, so long as the military designated it a threat to American citizens and the president certified it as such.
Obama also spoke about the state secrets privilege, which the government has increasingly invoked in national security cases to bar litigation that would reveal sensitive state information.
“This is a doctrine that allows the government to challenge legal cases involving secret programs. It has been used by many past Presidents — Republican and Democrat — for many decades,” Obama said. “And while this principle is absolutely necessary to protect national security, I am concerned that it has been over-used. We must not protect information merely because it reveals the violation of a law or embarrasses the government.”
Obama said the Justice Department would institute a stricter process to decide when to invoke the privilege, and the White House would report to Congress every year on its use.