The Department of Defense (DOD) released 198 photographs on Friday from Army and Navy criminal investigative files related to allegations of detainee abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, the first time the US government has ever disclosed such images.
But the photographs, part of a cache of as many as 2,100 that DOD has withheld for more than a decade on national security grounds after the ACLU requested them, do not rise to the level of the disturbing images from Abu Ghraib prison that surfaced in 2004. The pictures released Friday show detainees, whose faces are partially redacted, with bruises and abrasions on their backs, feet, arms, and head. None depict US soldiers posing with detainees or physically assaulting them.
"These photos fail to show a single act of abuse which the government's own records describe as having taken place," Dr. Vincent Iacopino, medical director of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a party to the lawsuit seeking the release of the images, said in a statement. PHR said the majority of the photographs released by DOD depict nonspecific injuries and it's impossible to determine whether the detainees were subjected to abuse without additional clinical information.
In a statement, Commander Gary Ross, a DOD spokesman, said these 198 photos came from independent criminal investigations into "misconduct by US personnel," which found that 14 of the allegations had merit and that 42 others did not.
"From those cases with substantiated allegations, 65 service members received some form of disciplinary action," Ross said. "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 photographs, taken by military investigators in 2004 and 2006, were released in response to a long-running Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed against the US government by the ACLU, which has sought records pertaining to the treatment of detainees in custody of the US military. The incendiary pictures in the collection, such as one depicting US soldiers pointing a broom handle at a hooded detainee's rectum, are still being withheld because DOD says their release could endanger the lives of US military personnel serving overseas.
"The disclosure of these photos is long overdue, but more important than the disclosure is the fact that hundreds of photographs are still being withheld," said ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer. "The still-secret pictures are the best evidence of the serious abuses that took place in military detention centers. The government's selective disclosure risks misleading the public about the true extent of the abuse."
In May 2009, after first promising that his administration would not fight an appeals court decision that called for the release of the photographs, President Barack Obama, backtracked and then worked closely with Congress to change the FOIA so that detainee abuse photographs could be withheld indefinitely as long as the Secretary of Defense reviews each photograph and signs a certification waiver every three years stating that their release would cause grave harm to national security. Obama's made the decision to conceal the photographs four months after he signed an executive order — one of his first acts as president — promising to usher in a new era of transparency and open government.
The first waiver blocking the release of the pictures was signed in 2009 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and it was renewed by his successor Leon Panetta in 2012. But US District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein, who is presiding over the ACLU's FOIA lawsuit, said Panetta's waiver was "deficient" because "it was not sufficiently individualized and it did not establish the Secretary's own basis for concluding that disclosure would endanger Americans," as required by the changes to the FOIA passed by Congress in 2009. Hellerstein ordered DOD to release all of the photographs. The Obama administration appealed the decision.
Last November, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter signed a new certification waiver after military officials conducted an individualized review of the photographs and determined that most still needed to be withheld. However, Carter also said the Pentagon could decertify the 198 photographs released on Friday because they would not harm national security.
"This determination was made following a thorough review of the photographs and in light of recommendations from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Commander, US Central Command; the Commander, US Africa Command; and the Commander, US Forces, Afghanistan," Ross said.
Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA's Security and Human Rights Program, said the photographs released Friday are "just a small portion of the real-life horror story that was the US government's practice of torture."
"Prosecutors should review these and other documents for evidence of torture and other ill treatment," she said in a statement. "These photos are not only reminders of torture committed by US personnel, they may provide potential new evidence of criminal wrongdoing. Prosecutors should immediately reopen and expand investigations into torture and other human rights violations."
The ACLU said it will continue to fight for the release of the remaining pictures. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for February 19.
As VICE News previously reported, a review we conducted of Army criminal investigative reports that probed the detainee abuse allegations contained detailed descriptions of the pictures that are still being withheld.
In one photograph, three soldiers at the St. Mere Forward Operating Base in Iraq posed with three Iraqi detainees who were "zip-tied to bars in a stress position, fully clothed, with hoods over their heads." Army investigators also found that a soldier "possessed a photograph of himself pointing what appears to be a pistol at an unidentified [prisoner], whose hands were tied and his head covered laying down."
Another photograph captured the corpse of a dead Afghan national who was shot by US soldiers in January 2004. The Afghani was believed to be responsible for a rocket-propelled grenade attack on Fire Base Tycze that seriously wounded three US soldiers, according to the Army criminal probe.
More than a dozen other photographs, Army criminal investigative reports say, show US Army soldiers in Afghanistan pointing assault rifles and pistols at the heads and backs of hooded and bound detainees, and soldiers kicking and punching detainees.
VICE News obtained documents from DOD in response to a FOIA request that indicate the photographs were from 203 closed criminal investigations into detainee abuse that occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Defense Department set up a task force to evaluate the images in May 2009, and the photographs were broken into three different categories:
- Category A: Will require explanation; Egregious, iconic, dramatic.
- Category B: Likely to require explanation; injury or humiliation.
- Category C: May require explanation; injury without context.
The documents go on to explain how the US government intended to "mitigate the threat to security and political stability" and the response to the release of the photographs in 2009, which included apologies to "regional partners" and "audiences who find images humiliating."
Ross, the DOD spokesman, said that Obama "has made very clear that the United States will ensure the safe, lawful, and humane treatment of individuals in US custody in the context of armed conflicts, consistent with the treaty obligations of the United States, including the Geneva Conventions."
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