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May 12, 2004
Should We Release The Pictures?

CNN reports that Congressional leaders have reviewed all of the confiscated pictures and video of Iraqi prisoner abuse, and the bipartisan consensus is that the images are "disgusting", "appalling", and "horrifying". Where that consensus disappears is in the ultimate disposition of the pictures -- should they be made public?

Top GOP leaders said Wednesday they oppose the release of hundreds of fresh images showing the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, saying they could compromise the prosecution of those soldiers implicated in the acts and further inflame tensions in Iraq. ...

McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, and Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, all said the pictures should be kept under wraps.

"In my view, and it's solely my view, these pictures, at this time, by the executive branch, should not be released into the public domain," Warner, R-Virginia, said, citing the possibility that more images of abuse end up "inspiring the enemy."

Most Democrats disagree, and even a few Republicans agree with their arguments:

Some lawmakers have urged the Bush administration to allow the photographs to be released in order to prevent further shocking disclosures.

"I think the only hope that we have, really, of redeeming ourselves here and winning back some of the support that this incident has cost us [is] if we act as an open society that will deal with problems openly, that will hold people accountable," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, agreed.

"Every time we have these photographs dribbled out or some expansion of that situation, it is not good for America," Chambliss said. "And we need to conclude it. And getting all of these photographs out at one time is the way to do it."

I understand the logic behind these arguments. Part of the problem we've experienced over the past few days is the drip, drip, drip of these photographs and the revelations of how they came to be. The story itself had already come out, months before, of Americans abusing Iraqis, but the details had not. Now we've seen a small subset of the known photographs, but we know that more and worse are still being held.

Undoubtedly, these pictures will surface whatever the administration decides. The original leak reportedly came from civilian defense attorneys for accused Abu Ghraib MPs in order to push the debate from the question of a few warped individuals to a larger, shared guilt that supposedly spreads throughout the entire military. That some members of Congress have only encouraged such tactics -- Mark Dayton primarily but not solely -- practically ensures their further use.

It is this warped sensibility about the pictures, both those released and those so far held back, that convinces me that the wisest course for now would be to keep them classified. Yes, they will eventually leak out, I suppose, and tactically a mass release up front might -- might -- mitigate their impact, especially at first. However, in my mind, a few items from the past few days have already pushed the pictures to the background of events.

First, the spectacle of our own representatives using these pictures to slander the armed forces of the US, culminating in Ted Kennedy's repugnant assertion that Saddam's torture chambers had "reopened under US management," as if these abuses sprang from calculated policy instead of a lack of discipline and oversight on the scene, has created more damage to our reputation and our efforts abroad than the pictures ever could. The pictures gave Mark Dayton all the prompting he needed to lecture General Richard Myers and Donald Rumsfeld on the strategy of materiel during wartime, and if that sounds ridiculous now, it sounded much worse when it happened.

Second, we are at war. I ask myself this question: will we be safer or more at risk by releasing the images to the public? Will Americans on the front lines have their task eased or grossly complicated by them? The answer to both questions prove to me that their release accomplishes nothing except make us feel good in a civil-libertarian way. Our elected representatives have access to them, and the military has already performed a thorough investigation, so no purpose other than curiosity is served. Is a thousand dead Americans in Iraq worth that self-absorption?

Lastly, the media coverage of the horrible Berg murder proved that the pictures of such an event are secondary. I didn't need to watch the video or see the stills of the animals who committed this barbaric murder to understand its nature. Nor do I need to see the images of the abused Iraqis to understand the nature of the crimes committed there. However, I also don't need to see them to know that the Americans responsible for committing those crimes will be held accountable by their own people for their actions, while Nick Berg's murderers will be celebrated amongst their people.

That is the overriding and overwhelming concern at this moment in time, and why the war takes precedence over pointless expressions of fairness. Everything else except the war and the law takes can wait for the later date, after victory, when we can once again wallow in self-indulgence.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at May 12, 2004 10:46 PM

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