Obama speaks on decision to fight release of abuse photos

The president says the pictures are "not particularly sensational" and that only a few people were responsible for what happened.

By Alex Koppelman

Published May 13, 2009 8:45PM (EDT)

President Obama wasn't originally supposed to speak out about his decision to reverse course and fight the release of new detainee abuse photos. But after a contentious briefing in which White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs had difficulty explaining the move to reporters' satisfaction, Obama took time from public remarks about the situation in Sri Lanka to provide additional insight.

A couple interesting things to note about the president's statement, which you can read in full below: First, while Obama provided some insight into why he chose to go this route, he didn't discuss why he changed his mind on the issue or how the photos are substantively different from the torture memos released earlier this year. Second, we still don't know what's in these photos, and the administration isn't providing any additional clarity, as Obama says they're "not particularly sensational," which is at odds with what Gibbs said during his briefing. And finally, in some ways Obama's language on this echoes his predecessor's -- in his statement, the president referred to the abuse depicted in these pictures as "what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals."

The statement:

Understand these photos are associated with closed investigations of the alleged abuse of detainees in our ongoing war effort. And I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib. But they do represent conduct that did not conform with the Army Manual; that's precisely why they were investigated and, I might add, investigated long before I took office. And, where appropriate, sanctions have been applied.

In other words, this is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or sought to justify inappropriate action. Rather, it has gone through the appropriate and regular processes. And the individuals who were involved have been identified, and appropriate actions have been taken.

It's therefore my belief that the publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals. In fact, the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.

Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse.

And, obviously, the thing that is most important in my mind is making sure that we are abiding by the Army Manual and that we are swiftly investigating any -- any instances in which individuals have not acted appropriately and that they are appropriately sanctioned. That's my aim, and I do not believe that the release of these photos at this time would further that goal.

Now, let me be clear: I am concerned about how the release of these photos would be -- would impact on the safety of our troops. I have made it very clear to all who are within the chain of command, however, of the United States Armed Forces that the abuse of detainees in our custody is prohibited and will not be tolerated.

I have repeated that since I've been in office. Secretary Gates understands that. Admiral Mullen understands that. And that has been communicated across the chain of command.

Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.


Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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