- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

President Obama reversed course Wednesday and said he will fight the release of photos showing apparent abuses of suspected terrorist detainees, saying he now believes their release would hurt the military.

Facing an ACLU lawsuit, the Pentagon last month agreed to release by May 28 the photos of U.S. troops humiliating prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq. But military officers and rank-and-file troops objected, and Mr. Obama said he has concluded the photos can only endanger troops.

“The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger,” he said on the lawn of the White House before departing on his helicopter for a trip to Arizona.

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 photos’ release. The Pentagon last month said it would comply, and gave a May 28 deadline. At the time the Pentagon reached the agreement, the White House said the president had thought through the implications and concluded no harm could come.

But in the ensuing weeks, officers and troops told the Pentagon making the photos public would be a problem.

“The concerns are many,” said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. “We’ve heard them from commanders and others out in the field the potential to incite violence, cause retaliation, and the impact the release of these photos could have on two young governments. These are critical times in both Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s only appropriate that we are mindful that we don’t make the job of our troops any more difficult than it already is.”

The White House said lawyers will request a delay of the May 28 deadline while they go back to court to argue the photos should not be released.

Mr. Obama ignored questions shouted at him about why he changed his mind.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the president concluded on his own that the government lawyers arguing the case did not present the best arguments for keeping the photos under wraps.

Military officials greeted the decision as a victory.

One senior military official said the intelligence and defense communities had already suffered a blow to morale after Mr. Obama released memos last month detailing harsh interrogation techniques, and said the photos would have compounded that.

“It’s like ripping a scab off,” said the military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “It would have been more of a political move than anything else. Many leaders in the Defense Department and within the intelligence community urged President Obama to do the right thing. They were concerned, as well, that if the pictures were released they would serve as a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations to say ‘look what will happen to you if you are captured.’ It could also incite violence.”

Members of Congress who had fought the photos’ release praised Mr. Obama’s reversal.

“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.”

The pictures in question were being used asevidence in criminal investigations against those accused of committing the acts. Mr. Obama has seen some of the photos and said they are “not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib.”

The Pentagon has investigated and punished more than 400 people based on investigations involving detainee abuse, Mr. Whitman said. Those found in violation have faced prison time, forfeiture of pay, reduction in rank and bad conduct discharges, he added.

&#8226 S.A. Miller and Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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