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What Are the Abu Ghraib Prison Photos and How Many Are There?

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hooded abu ghraib

Hooding, according to a February 2004 Red Cross report on abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, was used frequently to prevent prisoners from seeing or to disorient them, or to breathe freely. Hooding was sometimes used with beatings and forced standing.

U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)
Question: What Are the Abu Ghraib Prison Photos and How Many Are There?
Answer: On April 28, 2004, the CBS television program “60 Minutes II” broadcast several photographs showing Iraqi and other inmates being abused, humiliated and tortured by American soldiers at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison in the fall of 2003, about half a year into the American occupation of Iraq.

It isn’t clear who leaked the photographs to CBS. Clearer, however, are the following facts:

  • The photographs had already been circulating among enlisted men and military investigators thanks to Spc. Joseph Darby, a soldier with a conscience who handed over digital photographs to the Army's Criminal Investigation Command (CID).

  • Even before the photographs were in circulation, instances of abuses were well known to investigators and military rank and file at Abu Ghraib and other prisons, largely due to International Committee of the Read Cross alerts.

  • Ivan Frederick, father of Ivan “Chip” Frederick II—one of the enlisted men eventually sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the prison abuse and torture—started a chain of events that led to the original public disclosure.

  • In 2006, Salon, the online magazine, published a total of 279 photographs and 19 videos in its Abu Ghraib Files, still “the most extensive archive of photos and videos capturing detainee abuse at the U.S. Army's Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.”

  • Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense in 2004, said soon after some of the photos and videos became public that there were “many more photos” and videos that had not been leaked.

The Obama Flip-Flop on Releasing Additional Photographs

It was long known, as told by Rumsfeld, that the photographic record of abuse and torture images was larger than those disclosed. A court case instigated by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2004 led a federal district court to order the government to release all photographic and video evidence of inmate abuse and torture. The Appeals Court for the Second Circuit upheld the decision in September 2008.

On April 23, 2009, almost five years to the day when 60 Minutes broadcast the original Abu Ghraib pictures, the Pentagon announced that it would release at least 44 additional photographs from Abu Ghraib and other prisons in Iraq and “a substantial number of other images” gathered by Army investigators by May 28, 2009—not just of inmates at Abui Ghraib, but in many other prisons that were part of the American network of detention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Obama in April 2009 said he would agree to the release. The following month, Obama reversed himself, triggering a new uproar: Proponents of releasing the photographs criticized him of covering up an essential part of the record of the military’s and the CIA’s abuses. Opponents of release supported the reversal, saying the photographs could endanger American troops abroad. That’s the same argument the Bush administration used in its opposition to releasing the original photographs.

In the end, however, it is not up to Obama to decide whether the photographs should be released, as the Pentagon is under court order to do so. Should the Pentagon refuse, it would be breaking the law—unless the Obama administration convinces the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case. So far, there’s no sign that the court would.

Why Are the Additional Photographs So Sensitive?

Based on what’s known from the written record of numerous testimonies, military investigations, two extensive Red Cross reports on prisoner abuse and torture, and the Bush administration’s own memos on torture and prisoner treatment, which the Obama administration released, the photographs that haven’t yet been released will not show abuses and forms of torture that aren’t already well known. They might, however, illustrate more graphically than the printed words alleged cases of sodomy, child rape, the rape of a female inmate, mock executions and other form of brutalization.

The Role of the American Civil Liberties Union

Long before 60 Minutes broadcast the first batch of abuse and torture photographs, the American Civil Liberties Union had requested, on Oct. 7, 2003, “records related to the treatment and death of prisoners held in United States custody abroad after September 11, 2001, and records related to the practice of ‘rendering’ those prisoners to countries known to use torture,” according to court papers. The ACLU made its request through the Freedom of Information Act. The Bush administration ignored it. On June 2, 2004, the ACLU filed suit to force disclosure, including a known set of 87 photographs and other images of detainees at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Abu Ghraib prison.”

The Bush administration refused to comply, originally invoking the inmates’ privacy rights—an argument that didn’t hold once the ACLU held that the faces of the inmates could be blacked out. Next, the administration claimed that releasing the photographs “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of United States troops, other Coalition forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to court papers.

The photographs the ACLU wants disclosed were taken in at least seven different locations in Afghanistan and Iraq. They involved a greater number of detainees and U.S. military personnel. They were part of seven investigation files by the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command, known as Army CID. While many of the Abu Ghraib photos depicted detainees forced to pose in degrading and sexually explicit ways, the detainees in the 29 photographs were clothed and generally not forced to pose. In three of the investigations, Army CID found probable cause to believe detainee abuse had occurred related to those photographs.

“These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib,” Amrit Singh, a staff attorney with the A.C.L.U., told The Times.

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