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Can torture remain secret in a democracy?

2014 October 27

“If torture is a state secret,
impunity inevitably follows…”

Will we ever see the remaining torture photographs from Abu Ghraib and Bagram? In late October, federal Judge Alvin Hellerstein told White House lawyers that they have until December 12th to explain their rationale for keeping secret any of the roughly 2,100 photos showing “enhanced interrogation” (torture) of U.S. prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. The photos in question have never been seen by the public and, according to The Guardian, “are said to be even more disturbing than the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs that sparked a global furor.”

The Obama administration had previously announced its intention to release the photos, but changed its mind, with Obama stating that release of the photos would “further inflame anti-American opinion and…have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.” Think about that one for a moment: If we expose the military’s coverups of past misconduct, it will only make them more likely to cover up misconduct in the future. How would you feel if one of your kids tried that one on you?

According to Mr. Obama in a White House press briefing, “any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.” Yet this is the President who has refused to authorize prosecution of any of the government officials responsible.

AbuGAccording to Jessica Schulberg in the New Republic, the United States was relatively slow to sign on to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and Obama – despite early support for legislation that would outlaw U.S. torture of prisoners “regardless of their geographic location,” has signally failed to put this interpretation of the Convention into force. The New York Times, she points out, has reported that “Obama is considering…affirming Bush’s notion that the U.S. is only obligated to prevent torture within its own borders.” (This interpretation, of course, provides both the Bush and Obama administrations with the primary rationale for the establishment and continued use of the prison/interrogation facility at Guantánamo.)

Schulberg quotes a report from the organization Open the Government criticizing Obama’s position: “All of the violations of the Convention Against Torture…flow from a single source: the decision to allow the United States’ intelligence services to classify evidence of torture, even the victims’ memories of it. If torture is a state secret, impunity inevitably follows.”

Assuming that Hellerstein decides the Obama administration must release some photos to the public, and assuming that Obama decides to comply with the order, the judge has said that he will hold a hearing in January. It’s anticipated that the administration will seek to withhold as many as possible. Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has sought release of the photos for the past ten years, according to attorney Marcellene Hearn: “The American people deserve to know the truth about what happened in our detention centers abroad…We will continue to press for release of the photos in the courts.”


Note:, has filed a “shadow report” with the United Nations Committee Against Torture which will hold a review in Geneva on November 12 and 13 “to examine the United States’ record of compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Artwork: Justin Norman /cc/flickr, from Common Dreams: “An artist’s intepretation of prisoner mistreatment, because the real photos may never be released.” The image is called “Indefinite Detention,” and the subtitle reads “A reminder of those still being held indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, and other detention centers around the globe.”



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