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Iraq general swayed Obama on detainee photos

Gen. Ray Odierno, along with other top defense officials, argued that releasing the images of alleged detainee abuse would endanger US troops abroad.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / May 13, 2009

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top military commander in Iraq, at the Pentagon on Friday. Odierno has argued against releasing images of detainee abuse.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

In a reversal of his previous position, President Obama will now oppose the release of more than 40 photos allegedly showing detainees being mistreated after deciding that releasing them could put American troops in danger and inflame anti-US sentiments abroad.

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The change of heart apparently came after Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, made a personal plea to the White House against releasing the images because they would endanger US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The images are thought to show US troops mistreating detainees overseas in ways reminiscent of the 2004 Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

The photos were to be released before May 28 per a federal judge’s order. Mr. Obama’s reversal now means that the administration will appeal that ruling. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday during a hearing on Capitol Hill that the case could go to the Supreme Court.

With this decision, Obama has probably angered the left but scored political points on the other side of the aisle.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which had sought the photos under a freedom of information request, likened Obama's decision to the “stonewalling tactics” of the Bush administration.

“When these photos do see the light of day, the outrage will focus not only on the commission of torture by the Bush administration, but on the Obama administration’s complicity in covering them up,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, in a prepared statement. “Only by looking squarely in the mirror, acknowledging the crimes of the past and achieving accountability can we move forward and ensure that these atrocities are not repeated.”

The US military had long argued against the release of the photos but, in the words of one official, “ran out of cards to play.” After the administration said last month that it would not block the photos’ release, the military began preparing for the impact that the photos would have on the ground by “reaching out” to local leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan and explaining how the US has changed its interrogation policy.

But in the past month, General Odierno and Gen. David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan, made forceful arguments against the release of the photos. “Odierno made a very compelling case to the White House for his concerns and I would have to say that had enormous impact,” says a senior military official.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also argued against the release of the photos, though he recognizes the views on both sides, said a spokesman. “The chairman shares the president’s concern – and that of our ground commanders – over the potential harm to our troops that may result from the release of these photos, but he also understands the public’s legitimate interest in allegations of detainee abuse,” says Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for Mullen.

Secretary Gates was easily convinced of the necessity of blocking publication of the photos.

“Our commanders, both General McKiernan and General Odierno, have expressed very serious reservations about this and their very great worry that these would cost American lives,” Mr. Gates told a House panel Wednesday. “That’s all it took for me.”

Gates had weighed in separately last month on release of the so-called “torture memos,” which offered legal rationales for harsh interrogation techniques, describing their release as inevitable. But the effect of the photos, which would have run continually on TV and newspapers, would have had a far more harmful effect, defense officials say.

Republicans who have condemned Obama’s stance on harsh interrogation tactics applauded Wednesday’s move. “Making these images [available] would only serve to embolden our enemies and increase the danger for our troops, and I support the president’s decision,” said House Republican leader Rep. John Boehner. “I hope the administration continues to vigorously defend this position in the weeks and months to come.”