After years of fighting a court order, the Pentagon on Friday released nearly 200 pictures related to U.S military abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The photographs belong to a larger collection of as many as 2,100 images taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009, and are part of various investigations into military detainee abuse. Some of the images are reported to be even more disturbing than the notorious ones from Abu Ghraib, but they remain classified.
The pictures, which the Pentagon posted in its online reading room, are best characterized as “benign,” a Defense Department spokesman tells Newsweek. The images, some of which are partially redacted to conceal identities, show alleged injuries sustained by detainees through harsh treatment while in U.S military custody.
The images that remain classified allegedly show scenes like a female soldier pretending to sodomize a naked prisoner with a broom and troops pointing guns at detainees as they lie with their hands tied and with hoods over their heads.
In reaction to the photos’ release, Myles B. Caggins, spokesman for the National Security Council, tells Newsweek the photos belong to a bygone era in American history: “The President has made very clear that the United States will ensure the safe, lawful, and humane treatment of individuals in U.S custody in the context of armed conflicts, consistent with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions.”
According to a Defense Department spokesman, the photos the Pentagon released pertain to investigations that found approximately 14 substantiated allegations and 42 unsubstantiated ones.
The Defense Department spokesman said: “From those cases with substantiated allegations 65 service members received some form of disciplinary action. The disciplinary actions ranged from letters of reprimand to life imprisonment, and of the 65 who received disciplinary action, 26 were convicted at courts-martial.”
The photo dump comes months after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter invoked his authority under a 2009 law, allowing him to conceal a photo for up to three years if its release could potentially endanger American lives.
He decided to conceal all of the photos, except for the batch of approximately 200, suggesting their release no longer poses a security risk. The small declassification also follows a protracted legal battle over making the entire collection public.
The case began in 2004 when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued for the release of images relating to the treatment of detainees held by the U.S. abroad. A handful of harrowing pictures from Abu Ghraib prison leaked to the media later that year, depicting piles of naked bodies, detainees being led on leashes and U.S. soldiers giving a thumbs-up approval as it all happened.
U.S District Judge Alvin Hellerstein of New York first ordered the government to release the existing photographs in 2005. But as conditions in Iraq deteriorated and congressional fears over national security mounted, the images remained classified. Though the Justice Department had agreed to release the images, President Barack Obama shifted course in 2009, saying he feared the photos would “further inflame American opinion and…put our troops in greater danger.”
That year, Congress voted to give the Secretary of Defense the ability to sign a certification that would allow him to keep the pictures concealed, so long as the office believed making them public could put Americans in harm’s way. Former Pentagon chief Robert Gates swiftly capitalized on this newly afforded power, and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta followed suit in 2012, signing a blanket certification to keep the entire collection under wraps.
Yet the ACLU kept fighting for their release. “[The photographs] refute the narrative embraced by the Bush administration and later President Obama, that military abuse was an aberration,” argues Alex Abdo, an ACLU staff attorney who adds that the pictures were taken at least seven different detention facilities throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.