The Bush administration agreed Tuesday to release dozens of disputed photographs and videos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, two weeks after Salon published an official Army criminal archive that included many, if not all, of the same images.
The government's decision ends a nearly two-year legal battle with civil liberties advocates over whether the publication of the material would harm national security.
In a filing to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, government lawyers cited Salon's recent publication of the disputed images as the reason for dropping their legal fight. (A judge still has to accept the government's proposal to drop the case.)
A Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday that the military would now review Salon's Web site to see if there were any images or videos that were part of the court case that were not published. "Under the terms of the agreement, within seven days, we will identify the images recently published on a media website that were of issue in this appeal," said the spokesman, Lt. Col. John Skinner. "If any images at issue were not published on the website we will release those images with portions redacted."
The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil liberties groups had filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain 74 photographs and three videos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. The material had been given to Army investigators by military police Spc. Joseph Darby on Jan. 13, 2004, an event that launched the Army's criminal investigation into what occurred at the prison.
This month, Salon published 279 photos and 19 videos from the Army's subsequent investigation of abuse at Abu Ghraib, along with a chronological account of abuse based largely on Army materials. Salon obtained the images, video and previously unreleased investigation documents in February from a military source who spent time at the prison and who is familiar with the Army probe.
"The government's attempts to shield evidence of its own misconduct from public scrutiny ultimately proved to be futile," declared Amrit Singh, an attorney with the ACLU, in a press release issued after the Pentagon dropped its challenge.
In a legal filing last summer, Gen. Richard Myers, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that the disclosure of these images would "endanger the lives and physical safety" of U.S. military personnel, aid in the recruitment efforts of insurgent forces, weaken the democratic governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, and "increase the likelihood of violence against United States interests."
On Tuesday, Skinner, the Pentagon spokesman, repeated these concerns, but he acknowledged that he knew of no specific incidents that had resulted from the Salon publication of the material. "We've seen people exploit images like this before," Skinner said.
In September of 2005, federal District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein rejected the government's national security concerns, saying terrorists "do not need pretexts for their barbarism." He stayed his ruling pending an appeal in the 2nd Circuit, which has now been abandoned.
In an interview Tuesday, Singh said that the ACLU believed the government was still withholding a significant body of images and documents concerning the U.S. government's role in abusing detainees around the world. "The Darby photos are just a piece of the litigation that is ongoing," she said.
The ACLU is also seeking two additional documents: a directive signed by President Bush granting the CIA the authority to set up detention facilities outside the United States and outlining interrogation methods that may be used against detainees; and a Justice Department memorandum specifying interrogation methods that the CIA may use against top al-Qaida members. (The CIA does not even admit that the documents exist.) The government continues to oppose these requests.