NEW YORK (CN) – The U.S. government cannot conceal 20 photographs depicting abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan by claiming their release would endanger lives and invade the privacy of detainees, the 2nd Circuit ruled.
The court likened the photos to images of prisoners in concentration camps released at the end of World War II. “These photographs of emaciated prisoners, corpses, and remains of prisoners depicted detainees in states of powerlessness and subjugation similar to those endured by the detainees depicted in the photographs at issue here,” Judge Gleeson wrote. “Yet the United States championed the use and dissemination of such photographs to hold perpetrators accountable.”
The court upheld a federal judge’s order requiring the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army to release the photos to the American Civil Liberties Union.
The color photos, taken by members of the U.S. military, include images of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib by forcing them to pose in “dehumanizing, sexually suggestive ways,” the ruling says.
The government cited two reasons the photos were supposedly exempt under the Freedom of Information Act: Their release would incite violence against U.S. troops, coalition forces and civilians, and would invade the privacy of the detainees depicted in the images.
Weighing the security risks against the benefits of education and public debate, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein ordered the government to release the photos after removing all identifying facial features.
The appeals court affirmed, first rejecting the government’s endangerment argument. Though the Act allows the restriction of images that could endanger someone’s life or safety, the court said the exemption was reserved for specific threats.
“It is plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Judge Gleeson wrote.
According to the court, the government claimed that a 1986 amendment to the endangerment exemption “altered it fundamentally, transforming it from a shield against specific risks incident to law enforcement investigations into a diffuse and nebulous authority for keeping inflammatory information secret.”
“The defendants’ attempt to sweep far-reaching and speculative national security concerns into (the exemption) reaches far beyond the intent of Congress in enacting or amending the provision.”
On the issue of privacy, the court concluded that the redactions sufficiently shielded the detainees from being identified, even in light of the Geneva Conventions. The Geneva Conventions protect prisoners of war and detainees “against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”