- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

NEW YORK | The U.S. government can keep pictures of detainee abuse secret while it asks the Supreme Court to permanently block release of the photographs on the grounds they could incite violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, a federal appeals court said Thursday.

The one-paragraph ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan came after the Obama administration asked the court to keep the pictures secret so it could appeal to the nation’s highest court.

The administration last month said the disturbing photographs pose “a clear and grave risk of inciting violence and riots against American and coalition forces, as well as civilian personnel, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The appeals court stayed its order supporting a lower court judge’s decision to order release of the photographs until the Supreme Court had a chance to consider the case.

In Washington, the case of the abuse photos had stalled a crucial war-funding bill until late Thursday, when House-Senate negotiators sealed agreement on the bill after President Obama personally guaranteed the photos would never be released.

To reassure Democratic moderates who had balked at House demands that Congress not interfere in a lawsuit to force the release of photos of U.S. troops abusing detainees, Mr. Obama promised to use every available means to block their release.

The promise came after Democratic negotiators abruptly adjourned a public House-Senate negotiating session and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel rushed to the Capitol to resolve an impasse between Senate Democratic moderates and House liberals over the photos issue.

The compromise $106 billion war-funding bill faces House and Senate votes next week and, if passed, would then be sent to Mr. Obama to be signed into law.

The administration had indicated it was going to release the pictures until Mr. Obama reversed the decisionMay 13.

To support its arguments, the government filed partially secret statements from two top U.S. generals, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno.

In the filings, Gen. Odierno, who commands the troops in Iraq, said the 2004 release of photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison “likely contributed to a spike in violence in Iraq” that year. Gen. Petraeus, who oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, said the images could also lead to more violence in Pakistan because it deals with Taliban attacks.

The American Civil Liberties Union had sought release of 21 pictures, saying the action would make the government more accountable and help bring an end to the abuse of prisoners.

“We are disappointed by this ruling,” said ACLU attorney Amrit Singh. “It further delays the disclosure of photographs that are critical to informing the debate about the treatment of U.S. prisoners.”

Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for government lawyers in Manhattan, said the government had no comment.

In 2006, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in Manhattan had ordered the release of the pictures once identifying facial features were removed.

The color photographs were taken by service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. law allows restrictions on public access when images could reasonably be expected to endanger someone’s life or safety.

Last September, the appeals court agreed with Judge Hellerstein, saying there needed to be specific threats for the pictures to be blocked.

“It is plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the appeals court said.

The appeals court noted at the time that the government had earlier used the same argument to try to prevent the release of 87 photographs and other images of detainees at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, including at Abu Ghraib.

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