The nation’s top military official says U.S. troops would be endangered if photos showing poor treatment of terrorism suspects were made public, but House Democrats are making that release more likely.
House Democrats are blocking a bill, which even has the support of President Obama, that would give the government the power to stop the photos from being released.
Language prohibiting the release of the photos has passed the Senate three times since May in unanimous voice votes but has been stripped out when the House and Senate have hammered out compromise legislation.
“What’s the answer? The administration or the White House needs to put as much pressure as it possibly can on the House and the House leadership to let this come to an up-or-down vote,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats and who co-sponsored the measure with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said establishing the legal authority to withhold the photos was imperative to the safety of U.S. troops overseas, who would be a target for retaliatory violence if the photographs go public.
“Whatever laws or regulations we have in place need to preclude the ability to have those photos released,” he told editors and reporters at The Washington Times last week. “It could be devastating to our troops, to our troops’ safety.”
The office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, didn’t return five messages left last week seeking comment on the House’s inaction.
The measure, known as the Detainee Photographic Records Protection Act, would give the Pentagon the power to block the photos’ release for three years. The American Civil Liberties Union sued to force release of the photos, arguing it’s an important part of accounting for U.S. behavior in the war on terrorism.
The measure passed twice, as amendments to a war-spending bill and the annual Homeland Security appropriations bill. It was stripped out in negotiations between the Senate and House for final versions of the underlying bills.
House lawmakers even voted 267-152, with support of 95 Democrats, for a nonbinding show of support that the measure be included in the final war-spending bill for Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was left out of the final bill.
Adm. Mullen said that he has seen the photos in question and that he and the rest of the top military leadership involved in the war on terrorism agree that they cannot be released.
The admiral would not talk about what the photos showed.
Asked whether more instances of abuse are still trickling in, he said the photos he’s seen are all from previously known cases. He also said he’s made clear to his commanders that he considers the behavior in the photos unacceptable and takes a zero-tolerance policy toward it.
The ACLU won a court order that the photos must be released, and Mr. Obama initially agreed to release them. But earlier this year he reversed course and has asked the Supreme Court to hear the case. The administration filed papers Friday with the court asking it to block the photos’ release.
Alex Abdo, a legal fellow in the ACLU’s national security project, said the government’s arguments are anti-democratic because they deny citizens access to information they should see.
“It would justify greater suppression of the evidence most needing the light of day, which is evidence of government misconduct,” he said.
The color photos were part of the evidence in criminal investigations against guards accused of mistreating detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In late July, Mr. Obama called on the House to take action on a stand-alone bill giving the Pentagon authority to withhold the photographs. The request went unheeded by Mrs. Pelosi, who did not schedule a vote before adjourning for the August recess.
“It was very disappointing,” said Mr. Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “A majority of members of the House do want to do it. … But a minority … convinced the speaker not to let it happen.”
He said Mr. Obama should intensify the pressure on Mrs. Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders to let the majority “work its will.”
Mrs. Pelosi has been under intense pressure from her party’s liberal members to resist the legislation, including calls from Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, to hold hearings on the issue before allowing a bill to move forward.
Some House members are trying to force her hand.
Rep. Michael K. Conaway, Texas Republican and a chief proponent of the legislation, is threatening to use a discharge petition, which requires signatures from 218 members to force the legislation to the floor. He is joined in that effort by Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina, according to Mr. Conaway’s office.
Mr. Obama, in a July 29 letter to Mr. Lieberman and Mr. Graham, voiced support for the legislation, saying he “will work with Congress to get it passed and look forward to signing it.”
In the letter, sent three days before the House adjourned for its summer break, the president said mistreatment of detainees was unacceptable and will not be tolerated. He vowed to hold accountable those responsible.
“But I also must weigh the fact that 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,” Mr. Obama wrote. “It is my judgement … that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint United States troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.”
He said that “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.”