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Somewhere in the Pentagon is a folder with 21 color photographs. The photos contain images of US security personnel abusing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan – the latest, and potentially most explosive, in a series of controversial photos that first came to light in 2003 and sparked outrage around the world.
At stake, some observers contend, is a fair and democratic reckoning of how the US military treats suspects and prisoners in the war on terrorism, and what it will be allowed to suppress going forward.
The American Civil Liberties Union had successfully pursued a case for the release of the photos. In an attempt to block the release, the Obama administration appealed to the US Supreme Court. But before the high court could decide whether to take up the case, Congress stepped in. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the duration of the ACLU's case and wrongly stated that the US Supreme Court had agreed to hear it.]
The bill, which allows the Pentagon to block the photos, was approved by the Senate on Tuesday, and by the House earlier. It is now on its way to the White House for President Obama to sign into law.
The Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to suppress 87 photos of detainee abuse in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the now infamous photos from Abu Ghraib. But it dropped its efforts after the photos were posted online.
Some pictures show "soldiers pointing pistols or rifles at the heads of hooded and handcuffed detainees," Solicitor General Elena Kagan said in the appeal to the high court.
In one, "a soldier holds a broom as if 'sticking its end into the rectum of a restrained detainee,'" Kagan said, quoting from an investigation report prepared by the Pentagon. Two investigations led to criminal charges and convictions, she said.
The ACLU acknowledges that if released, the photos may provide propaganda for terrorists. But it argues that no democracy has ever been strengthened by suppressing evidence of its wrongdoing. This was the legal group's message in a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times.
The Obama White House had originally supported the release of the photos, in contrast to the Bush administration, and argued for greater transparency in alleged detainee abuse.
But now, the Obama administration has reversed course. It staunchly defends the photos' suppression. Proponents of freedom of information, including the ACLU, have expressed their outrage of what they see as a stark about-face.
The reversal could, again, speak to how potentially troubling the photographs are. In an unusual move, US military commanders had warned the president that the photos could be used as a recruitment tool by extremists.
"My belief is the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefits to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals," Obama explained. "The most direct consequence would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and put our troops in greater danger."