The military appears ready to recycle arguments from last year, that photographic evidence of wartime abuses by American soldiers poses a threat to national security, the military, or both.
An Army commander is imposing strict limits on photographs in connection with the deaths of three Afghan civilians earlier this year. Descriptions of the photographs and some of the military’s rationales for secrecy in this case are reminiscent of previous photographs and justifications:
The pictures in question show “three dead Afghans with three different Soldiers posing, holding up the decedent’s head. (Each photo was one Afghan, one Soldier),” according to an e-mail by Benjamin Grimes, senior defense counsel at Base Lewis-McChord. Others [photographs described in a memo by Grimes] showed what appeared to be severed fingers and a bone.
(from Salon.com, 9/30/10)
A top Army official has ordered that images of dead or wounded “casualties or detainees” may not be made public during hearings involving an American soldier accused of murdering three Afghan civilians during a deployment to Afghanistan this year.
But the images would be accessible to defense and prosecution teams and could potentially be used as evidence in the case, the Army official, Col. Barry F. Huggins, said in a memorandum.
The decision reflects concern among the Army’s senior leadership that such evidence could anger Afghan civilians at a time when the United States is trying to win support for a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban.
“I have determined that the risk of potential prejudice to the substantive rights of the accused, as well as negative impact on the reputation of the armed forces, associated with the potential public dissemination of these images outweighs minimal hardship upon the accused as a result of this order,” wrote Colonel Huggins.
(from the New York Times, 9/24/10)
With the Obama Administration’s support, Congress has already let the Secretary of Defense withhold photographs showing how U.S. forces handled (and in some cases abused) detainees. That ban only covered photographs taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009; these photographs were taken in 2010.
Will the Administration be tempted to extend the exemption? There’s only one way to find out: Salon.com has filed a FOIA request for the photos.
The fact that this has come up so quickly after the detainee photo controversy shows these fears will come up repeatedly over information held by government, and the justification for the first photos ban was too broad and vague to ensure the U.S. government is kept accountable for the actions of its soldiers.