President Obama has reversed course and decided to fight the release of more photos showing apparent abuses of suspected terrorist detainees, a move driven by the president’s newfound belief that their release would hurt the military.
Facing an ACLU lawsuit, Mr. Obama’s Pentagon last month agreed to release the photos by May 28. The photos are said to show U.S. military personnel abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Mr. Obama now thinks the photos would undermine national security and ongoing efforts by U.S. troops in Iraq, and has asked his lawyers to pursue a new line of argument in asking that the photos remain sealed.
“The president believes that the specific case surrounding the damage that would be done to our troops and our national security has not fully been developed and put in front of the court,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, was brutal in blasting the decision to fight the release, saying Mr. Obama may “betray” both his campaign promises and his commitment to American principles.
“The Obama administration’s adoption of the stonewalling tactics and opaque policies of the Bush administration flies in the face of the president’s stated desire to restore the rule of law, to revive our moral standing in the world and to lead a transparent government,” he said.
The ACLU filed several lawsuits to force the release of the photos. The Pentagon last month said it would comply, and gave a May 28 deadline.
At the time of the decision, Mr. Gibbs told reporters, Mr. Obama saw no reason to fight the release and had decided that making the photos public would not hurt the military.
On Wednesday, Mr. Gibbs could not explain specifically what changed, but said Mr. Obama reflected on this case and “believes [the photos] have the potential to pose harm to our troops.”
He said the president himself decided the lawyers who argued the case for the government initially did not make their best case for withholding the photos, and he said Mr. Obama has come to the conclusion that argument should be made.
“I’m not going to get into blame for this or that,” Mr. Gibbs said.
He did say that part of the new legal argument is that if the photos are released, it could actually hurt investigations into detainee abuses.
Top Republicans and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut independent, had called on Mr. Obama to fight the release, saying the photos could be as damaging to U.S. interests as the release of photos from Abu Ghraib, an Iraqi prison where U.S. troops took photographs of prisoners in humiliating positions.
On Wednesday, they welcomed Mr. Obama’s change of position.
“Changing one’s mind is a strength, not a weakness, if you do it for the right reasons,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “I think he did it for all the right reasons.”
Mr. Lieberman said publicizing the photographs of U.S. agents mistreating terrorist detainees would only feed “useless voyerism.”
“The net effect of the release of these pictures would have been to increase the danger [and] the risk to American military and diplomatic personnel, indeed to Americans all around the world,” Mr. Lieberman said, adding that it would have “undercut the advances President Obama has made in improving America’s image around the world.”
Mr. Graham said the president’s action reflected “mature” leadership, a comment that was in stark contrast to Republican criticism during the presidential campaign that Mr. Obama lacked the experience to serve as commander in chief.