Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has blocked the release of photographs depicting US soldiers abusing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, invoking new powers just granted to him by Congress that allows him to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and keep the images under wraps on national security grounds.
In a brief filed with the US Supreme Court late Friday, Department of Defense General Counsel Jeh Johnson, and Solicitor General Elena Kagan, said Gates “personally exercised his certification authority” on Friday to withhold the photos and “determined that public disclosure of these photographs would endanger citizens of the United States, members of the United States Armed Forces, or employees of the United States Government deployed outside the United States.”
“Based on that determination, the Secretary has concluded that the photographs are ‘protected documents’” and are “exempt from mandatory disclosure under FOIA,” the government’s brief states.
In his certification included with the filing, Gates said his decision to withhold as many as 2,000 photos was based “upon the recommendations of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Michael Mullen], the Commander of U.S. Central Command [David Petraeus], and the Commander of Multi-National Forces-Iraq [Ray Odierno]…”
As first reported by truthout, the photographs at issue include one in which a female solider is pointing a broom at a detainee “as if [she were] sticking the end of a broomstick into [his] rectum.”
Other photos are said to show US soldiers pointing guns at the heads of hooded and bound detainees in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division investigated the matter and “three of the six investigations led to criminal charges and in two of those cases, the accused were found guilty and punished,” according to papers Kagan previously filed with the Supreme Court.
The ACLU filed a FOIA request in 2003 to gain access to photographs and videos related to the treatment of “war on terror” prisoners in US custody and sued the government a year later to enforce the FOIA filing. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York ordered the release of the photos in a June 2005 ruling that was affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in September 2008.
The Bush administration challenged the Second Circuit’s ruling, and in March the court denied that petition. In its earlier ruling, the appeals court also shot down the Bush administration’s attempt to radically expand FOIA exemptions for withholding the photos, stating that the Bush administration had attempted to use the FOIA exemptions as “an all-purpose damper on global controversy.”
The Obama administration indicated it would abide by the appeals court order and release at least 44 of the photographs in question, but, in May, after he was pilloried by Republicans, President Obama backtracked, saying he had conferred with high-ranking military officials who advised him that releasing the images would stoke anti-American sentiment and would endanger the lives of US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
As Truthout previously reported, the Obama administration petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear the case last summer. The petition raised similar arguments related to FOIA exemptions in this case as those made by the Bush administration and later rejected by the Second Circuit.
Justices were prepared to meet and decide whether to take the case, but the high court agreed last month to delay their decision at the request of Obama administration officials who wanted to wait and see if Congress would pass legislation authorizing the Defense Department to circumvent FOIA.
In other words, the Obama administration wanted Congress to pass a law that would effective quash the Second Circuit’s decision. And that’s exactly what lawmakers did last month when they passed the Homeland Security appropriations bill, signed into law by President Obama, which included a provision to amend FOIA. The provision gave Gates the power to withhold “protected documents” he believes would endanger the lives of US soldiers or government employees deployed outside of the country if publicly released.
The amendment was originally sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, (I-Connecticut), and Lindsey Graham, (R-South Carolina). Obama sent a letter to the lawmakers last summer stating that he would work closely with Congress to help pass the measure to keep the abuse photographs sealed, according to a footnote in the administration’s Supreme Court petition.
Rep. Louise Slaughter, (D-New York), who opposed the FOIA amendment, said in a floor statement in October as Congress was debating the provision, that the language, stripped from an earlier version of the bill, was quietly reinserted “apparently under direct orders from the [Obama] administration.”
According to the bill, the phrase “protected documents” refers to photographs taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009, and involves “the treatment of individuals engaged, captured or detained” in the so-called “war on terror.” Photographs that Gates determines would endanger troops and government employees could be withheld for three years.
The ACLU said Gates’ certification “is categorical with respect to all of the photos and fails to provide the individualized assessment that the amendment’s language requires and also fails to provide any basis for the claim that disclosure of the photos would harm national security.”
The group intends to file a response to the administration’s brief next week.
In an oped column published in the Los Angeles Times last month, Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said although the powers Congress granted Gates is meant to cover the abuse photos, it “could also cover, for example, video footage of aerial attacks that resulted in civilian casualties or photos showing the conditions of confinement at the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan.”
“The legislation establishes a regime of censorship that would extend to many images of the military’s activities abroad.” Jaffer wrote.
Obama’s decision to sign legislation into law that allows his administration to circumvent FOIA marks an about-face on the open-government policies that he proclaimed during his first days in office.
On January 21, Obama signed an executive order instructing all federal agencies and departments to “adopt a presumption in favor” of Freedom of Information Act requests, and promised to make the federal government more transparent.
“The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears,” Obama’s order said. “In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.”
Instead of withdrawing its petition now that legislation has been passed, the Obama administration on Friday asked the high court to vacate the Second Circuit’s ruling, and then “remand to allow the lower courts to address the effect of the new legislation on the litigation.”
“Given Congress’s enactment of intervening legislation resolving the present dispute by providing for withholding of the records at issue, the Court now has no occasion to address the proper construction of [FOIA] Exemption 7(F) as set forth in the government’s petition,” the government’s filing states. “The appropriate disposition, after these events, is for this Court to [pull the case up from the Second Circuit and take jurisdiction of the case and the issue], vacate the judgment of the court of appeals, and remand for further proceedings… in light of the intervening legislation” passed by Congress.
In its earlier Supreme Court petition, the Obama administration argued that FOIA Exemption 7(F) allows for the withholding of information if it threatens the lives of individuals.
The Second Circuit, however, disagreed. The court ruled that FOIA “mandates the public disclosure of such photographs – regardless of the risk to American lives – because FOIA Exemption 7(F) requires the government to ‘identify at least one individual with reasonable specificity’ and show that disclosure ‘could reasonably be expected to endanger that individual.'”
The government argued that the Second Circuit misinterpreted the law when it ruled that the government had to identify specific individuals who would be harmed by the disclosure of the photographs
The Obama administration maintained that the Second Circuit’s interpretation of Exemption 7(F), “is inconsistent with the text of Exemption 7(F), which broadly encompasses danger to ‘any individual,’ with no suggestion of the court’s extra-textual requirement of victim specificity. The history of drafting that exemption “underscores that conclusion. Congress did not mean for public disclosure of agency records to trump the life and physical safety of individuals – particularly in a case such as this, in which the government has already made public the underlying investigative reports revealing all relevant allegations of wrongdoing and the associated investigative conclusions.”
“The President and the United States military fully recognize that certain photographs at issue depict reprehensible conduct by American personnel and warranted disciplinary action,” the government’s petition states. “There are neither justifications nor excuses for such conduct by members of the military. But the fact remains that public disclosure of the photographs could reasonably be expected to endanger the lives and physical safety of individuals engaged in the Nation’s military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photographs therefore are exempt from mandatory disclosure under FOIA. Review by this Court is warranted to give effect to Exemption 7(F) and the protection it affords to the personnel whose lives and physical safety would be placed at risk by disclosure.”
Alex Abdo, a legal fellow with the ACLU’s National Security Project, said the Obama administration’s argument for continuing to suppress the photos “sets a dangerous precedent – that the government can conceal evidence of its own misconduct precisely because the evidence powerfully documents gross abuses of power and of detainees.
“This principal is fundamentally anti-democratic. The American public has a right to see the evidence of crimes committed in their name.”
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