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Torture Photos From Abu Ghraib and Elsewhere: Pros and Cons of Disclosure


inhuman pyramid abu ghraib

Sabrina Harman stands behind a pile of stripped Iraqi inmates forced, inhumanly, to make a "human pyramid and pose for pictures., one of a series of sexually humiliating methods of abuse used to degrade prisoners.

U.S. Army / Criminal Investigation Command (CID)
Numerous photographs and several videos showing Iraqi and other inmates at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison being abused, humiliated and tortured were leaked to the press in April 2004, unleashing a scandal that reverberates to this day. The photographs and images were released with little context but had an immediate, dramatic effect as they showed inmates being terrorized by dogs, beaten by guards, humiliated in variously absurd and degrading sexual situations, and shown bloodied by gunshots, beatings or both.

Should the images have been released? The question is pertinent even five years later, as the record of Abu Ghraib photographs is still incomplete. The Pentagon suppresses many additional photographs and videos that purportedly show more grave and degrading situations, including the rape and sodomy of inmates by American servicemen.

Strong arguments are being made by proponents of disclosure. Less convincing arguments are being made by proponents of secrecy. Among those: President Obama, who originally favored full disclosure, only to reverse himself when Pentagon and Obama administration officials pressured him to change his mind.

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In April 2008, the Pentagon agreed to the release of at least 44 additional photos and images. The material was believed to show evidence of torture and abuse not only at Abu Ghraib, but in six or seven other U.S. detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan. It isn;t clear whether the images would contain evidence of abuse at Guantanamo Bay's prison. It is almost certain that they would not contain any sort of photographic evidence from so-called "black sites," the secret prisons run by the CIA in Eastern Europe (including Romania and Poland), Tunisia and Morocco, and, for a time, Thailand.

The Obama administration, in a spirit of disclosure, had released numerous "torture memos" authored by the Bush administration's Justice Department. Those memos helped trace the line of accountability from torture and abuse documented at Abu Ghraib to the senior members of the Bush administration, including President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld. In the same spirit of disclosure, Obama agreed to the release of additional photographic evidence from Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

In late May, 2009, Obama reversed himself. Releasing the additional photographs and images, he claimed, would put American troops abroad in danger. It was the same claim (discredited by federal courts and recent history) that the Bush administration had made when it originally tried to suppress the photographic record out of Abu Ghraib.


Beginning in 2002, the International Committee of the Red Cross alerted the Bush administration through the Pentagon that it was detecting a pattern of abuse and torture in U.S.-run military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan. The reports intensified in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq, and especially by summer and fall 2003, when the Bush administration was caught off guard by the violence of the Iraqi insurgency and the lack of actionable intelligence from detainees in Iraq.

By mid-2003, the administration had already approved "enhanced interrogation techniques" against al-Qaeda prisoners in secret "black site" prisons run by the CIA and at the military's Guantanamo Bay prison known as Gitmo. On orders of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the tactics were exported to Iraq and implemented in U.S.-run prisons, especially at Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad, where the CIA and military intelligence conducted interrogations.

Low-level soldiers were ordered to "soften up" prisoners for interrogation. Abuse, humiliation, torture involving sexually explicit acts, including rape, sodomy, forced masturbation and brutalization of inmates' genitals followed. The abuses and torture were photographed by enlisted men and women. When word of the abuse spread through the ranks, a low-level military investigation followed, then some of the images were leaked to the press and broadcast on CBS' "60 Minutes II" program in late April, 2004, unleashing a scandal that reverberates years later.

But the photographs released in 2004 weren't the whole story. The American Civil Liberties Union, well before the original release of images, had fought the administration in court to force the release of all the photographic evidence of abuse and torture in all American prisons. In 2006 and 2006, federal courts ruled in favor of the ACLU, ordering the Pentagon to release the photographs and images.

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