< To Release or Not to Release


Friday, May 15, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week, the Obama Administration announced it would not release photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. An ACLU lawsuit settled at the end of last month compelled the Department of Defense to release the photos, and the White House said at the time it would comply. This week, the Administration changed its tune. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs outlined President Obama’s position on Wednesday.

PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: He believes that the release of these photos could pose a threat to the men and women we have in harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and doesn't believe that the government made the strongest case possible to the court, and asked the legal team to go make that case.

BOB GARFIELD: The photos could have served as a visual aid in all the ongoing debates about torture that had played out during the weekend. Republicans pointed their fingers at Nancy Pelosi, saying she signed off on waterboarding. Democrats in the Senate led hearings on interrogation techniques under the Bush Administration. And an Op-Ed by Richard Cohen in The Washington Post on Thursday, along with multiple TV appearances by former Vice-President Dick Cheney, re-ignited a debate on cable news and blogs about whether torture works. But all those debates were waged without the photos. New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer is author of the book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals. She says, like the rest of us, she’s not exactly sure what’s in the photos.

JANE MAYER: There’s been a long persistent rumor that there were pictures of kids being abused and women maybe being sexually abused, and I have not seen whether or not that is true. Without being able to see them, you really can't tell.

BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me there’s two ways to view the question of to release or not to release. One is the truth and reconciliation path, you know, that we need to come to grips with our deeds, come what may. And the other is this sort of Danish cartoons problem, that the exercise in self-criticism just doesn't justify the risk of inflaming the world and endangering our troops.

JANE MAYER: Another possibility exists too, though, that - that if you don't actually release the documents, it leaves open to the human imagination what the United States was doing. And sometimes the imagination is even worse than the reality. I mean, if, in fact, these pictures are less bad than those at Abu Ghraib, then maybe they can put to rest rumors. The other point I wanted to make, though, was that if, in fact, those photographs show crimes of some sort, then this is evidence that needs to be turned over in some way to law enforcement authorities, rather than just being deep-sixed someplace.

BOB GARFIELD: I want to play you two pieces of tape. The first is presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, the second, former Vice-President Dick Cheney.

PRESS SECRETARY ROBERT GIBBS: The President believes that the existence of the photos themselves doesn't actually add to the understanding that detainee abuse happened.

FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: They campaigned all across the country against enhanced interrogation techniques and made it very clear they were opposed to that; they called it torture. I don't believe it was torture. We had attorneys who gave us clear guidance as to what was appropriate and what wasn't.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, I dare say if these photos were released, and assuming what they depict is at least as egregious as what we saw from Abu Ghraib, Cheney would be hard pressed, even on the FOX News channel, to continue asserting that the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” aren't torture. Is that not, alone, justification for releasing them, you know, to put that issue to rest, once and for all?

JANE MAYER: Well, I mean, the Obama Administration has been very clear, in their own right, in saying, for instance, that waterboarding was torture, so they are trying to hold the line, saying that this is torture, but it’s unnecessary to take another look at the details. I think the problem, though, is that so long as Vice-President Cheney and others are still defending those policies, there’s a debate out there. And without the public really being able to see what people are talking about, it’s hard for the public to make up its mind.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, on the subject of debates, the debate seems to have shifted in the past few weeks into a question not of what constitutes torture but, you know, assuming that enhanced interrogation techniques are torture, whether it has worked. Do you think that the release of these photos could shift the dialogue away from efficacy back to basic law and morality?

JANE MAYER: Well, I think there’s a power in photographs that -- I'm sorry to say as a writer -- that is very hard to capture just in writing. And I think they have an immediacy and a kind of an emotional wallop that is very hard to deliver just by describing these techniques. Certainly, those pictures that were released, the Abu Ghraib pictures, turned the entire debate on torture. It opened it up and it began the process of reform that we've seen since.

BOB GARFIELD: So, the government has decided not to release them. It’s not over. Do the courts still have a say in this, and is it not inevitable that at one point or another we will see these images?

JANE MAYER: I think it is inevitable we'll see these images. And the courts do have a say in it because a judge has told the ACLU, which has sued to get these images, that they have a right to them. So, I don't think we've seen the end of it yet. These are also, I have to say, not the only controversial photographs that exist. The CIA has apparently thousands of photographs of detainees, many of them in extremis and many of them naked. So, this is just part of the photo collection [LAUGHS] that’s now in the U.S. Archive.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jane. Well, thank you so much.

JANE MAYER: Glad to be with you.

BOB GARFIELD: Jane Mayer is author of the book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, which was released in paperback last week.