5 August 2005 at 12:24:10 AM
Reporters Committee urges court to order Abu Ghraib photo release
A coalition of 14 media organizations and public interest groups organized by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in U.S. District Court in New York urging the release of Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photos.
The coalition, which includes CBS Broadcasting Inc., NBC Universal Inc., and The New York Times Co. , supports a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union has had pending the Defense Department since October 2003.
The government argues that the information is protected by Exemption 7(F) of the FOI Act, which protects law enforcement records from disclosure when they "could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual." Citing recent riots in Afghanistan following Newsweek's publication of an article about alleged Koran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, later retracted, the government says the official release of Abu Ghraib prison abuse photos could similarly incite violence against military personnel and civilians overseas.
"The government has taken the position in this case that the more outrageously the behavior exhibited by American troops, the less the public has a right to know about it," said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish. "Such a stance turns the Freedom of Information Act inside out."
Exemption 7(F) has never been applied to hide incendiary evidence of government misconduct. Adopting such an interpretation would have dire consequences, the coalition brief argues, by rewarding misconduct with secrecy and "obscuring government accountability at a time when it is most necessary for the public to have full access to the facts." As a result, the American people would suffer a substantial erosion of meaningful news media coverage about wartime misconduct.
The photos at issue, known as the "Joseph Darby records" after the military policeman who first turned them over to the Army in early 2004, graphically depict detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. A handful of them were leaked to reporter Seymour Hersh and published in the May 10, 2004, edition of The New Yorker magazine. Some also were broadcast by CBS News.
The story and photos made front-page news around the world, sparking international and domestic debate about wartime detainee treatment, interrogation techniques and military accountability.
Hellerstein had earlier ordered the government to prepare the Darby photos for release by redacting any detainees' identifying features, but last month just hours before the July 23 deadline, the government filed its Exemption 7(F) claim instead of releasing the photos.
Exemption 7(F) has been invoked most often to hide the names of law enforcement agents, witnesses, and informants from criminal defendants and convicts that might hurt them. The government's novel interpretation should be rejected, the coalition writes, because the public's ability "to obtain facts about the government's misconduct through the news media and to hold the government accountable through democratic institutions" depends on it.
Although it is relatively rare for friend-of-the-court briefs to be filed at the trial court level, the novelty of the government's argument and its consequences for Americans' access rights prompted the coalition's formation and opposition.
The media and public interest coalition is represented pro bono by lawyer David Smallman of DLA Piper Rudnick LLP.
The 14 news organizations and companies are The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Advance Publications Inc., American Society of Newspaper Editors, CBS Broadcasting, Inc., the E.W. Scripps Company, the Hearst Corporation, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., NBC Universal Inc., the Newspaper Association of America, the New York Times Company, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Newspaper Guild-CWA, and the Tribune Company.
The friend-of-the-court brief filed Aug. 3 can be found at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20050804-amicusbrie.html
The next hearing is on August 15
Last month, meanwhile, the Pentagon refused a federal judge's order to make public more Abu Ghraib photos, promising instead a sealed brief telling why it wouldn't. Perhaps the reluctance stemmed from this week's revelation in The Washington Post that American interrogators stuffed an Iraqi general into a sleeping bag as they killed him. Or it could be because, as one GOP senator who saw them said, "rape and murder" is what the photos and videos depict: shrieking Iraqi boys being sodomized as cameras rolled, women raped, men forced to masturbate while being videotaped and prisoners forced to have sex with each other.
Hundreds of innocent Iraqis were detained at Abu Ghraib alone. Even Mr. Rumsfeld doesn't pretend that the tactic brought any intelligence successes. In typical fashion, a Pentagon attorney fought the Abu Ghraib photos' release on the grounds that they only add to the captives' humiliation. But the facts continue to be at odds with the administration's canard that its unique war on terrorism requires unique methods. Sens. Graham and McCain are correct: The policies spawned at Guantanamo Bay and exported to Iraq not only have hurt the nation's standing but endanger Americans everywhere.
Prison Abuse Decisions Came From the Top
In an op-ed in today's Cleveland Plain Dealer, Weiner, now president of a public affairs issues strategies company, contends, "The orders to torture came from the top down. In the pyramid of power, first and foremost was President Bush's Jan. 25, 2002 executive order disavowing the Geneva Conventions for the 'new' kind of war we are fighting. Moreover, then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez (now Attorney General) assisted in writing the 2002 memo, which also asserted that the Geneva Conventions -- respected worldwide -- were 'quaint' and 'obsolete.' Last May, before all our eyes in televised hearings, Department of Defense Under Secretary for Intelligence Dr. Stephen Cambone, who coordinates DOD intelligence policy, visibly waived off and interrupted key parts of Major General Antonio Taguba's testimony before the U.S. Senate on the depths of abuses."
In the piece, Weiner and co-author Emma Dick, a human rights analyst for Weiner's issue strategies company, contend that "calls to close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay have diverted attention from the policies that have made both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib infamous." They call it "astounding" that "the White House is claiming it would 'restrict the president's authority' to pass bipartisan legislation prohibiting the 'cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment' of detainees, and that Vice President Cheney is meeting with Congress saying the president will veto any such bill." Cheney has even stated that "if we didn't have that facility at Guantanamo to undertake this activity, we'd have to have it someplace else," words which Weiner and Dick say "send a chill to the human rights community."
The writers point out that "the torture strategy we've seen was hardly accidental or random. Army prison guards and wardens have stated that they often had to yield their turf to DoD Intelligence operations, and then the torture occurred. A June 25, 2004 memo between the FBI and DoD gave instructions to two generals: 'DoD has their marching orders from the Sec Def' about policies in the torture-questioning of prisoners."
They add, "The administration fought with Amnesty International and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) over the use of the word 'gulag' in reference to the prison at Guantanamo Bay. In fact, such hyperbole may be needed to bring an end to the policies."
Weiner and Dick assert, "Torturing prisoners, making people pile up naked, electric shock in private areas, using vicious dogs to bite, holding people in secret in perpetuity and denying them access to their families and the legal process are not the human rights values this nation stands for. As prisoners' families, colleagues and countrymen hear of the abuses, support swells rather than diminishes for Jihad against us. We have dramatically reduced our national reputation as a human rights leader."
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