May 10, 2004


The New York Times

Officials Grapple With How and When to Release More Images


ASHINGTON, May 9 — The Defense Department is planning to provide Congress with many more pictures of the abusive treatment of Iraqi detainees, but has not decided whether to release them to the public, Congressional leaders and Pentagon officials said Sunday.

In the end, President Bush is likely to make the determination on making the images public, aides said.

Inside the White House, several of Mr. Bush's aides have argued that he has little choice but to make them public. Sooner or later, they say, the images will leak out, prolonging the pain, fueling Iraqi and Arab suspicions of a Pentagon-orchestrated cover-up, and giving new life to calls for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's removal.

Many in the Pentagon, though, are resisting. Pentagon officials warned that a public release could jeopardize its criminal inquiry. They theorized that defense lawyers could cite a governmental release in motions to dismiss charges, arguing that their clients could not get a fair hearing. So far, seven soldiers are facing charges related to abuse of Iraqi detainees.

In meetings this weekend, officials who took part said, some senior military officials argued that releasing the pictures would only further inflame Iraqis, fuel the insurgency and make it nearly impossible to gain help from Arab allies. Moreover, the officials expressed fear in those meetings that any captured American soldiers would be placed at greater risk.

That argument broke out in public on Sunday when the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, seemed to back keeping the images from public view, describing them as "of a classified nature" on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." He was immediately challenged by a fellow Republican, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who shot back: "If there's a videotape out there, for God's sake let's talk about it, because men and women's lives are at stake, given how we handle this. So I want to get it all out on the table."

The Pentagon's chief spokesman, Larry Di Rita, confirmed that the Defense Department had been in discussions with Congress to find a way for members to view the photographs and videos. "We're looking for a mechanism to do that," Mr. Di Rita said.

One complication, he said, is that the Pentagon is not certain it has obtained all photographic and video material gathered as evidence in the case from military investigators in Iraq.

While pressure grew to push the images out for public review, the Pentagon was aware that such a decision could taint the criminal investigation.

On one hand, Mr. Di Rita said, is "an understandable desire for people to see and get a better sense of the range of activities that may be depicted in the photos." On the other, he noted, "is everybody's desire and obligation to be careful about not prejudicing an administrative review and criminal proceeding."

In an interview later Sunday, Mr. Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve with 20 years' experience in the area of military justice, said: "We actually have an opportunity to prove to those who may still be open-minded that there is a difference between us and the Saddam Hussein regime. I really do believe that a lot of people are sort of checking under the hood of democracy to see if they want to be part of it."

He said the material was almost certain to become public eventually and that a "drip, drip" of damaging photos would only add to what he described as a public relations disaster. He said there might be a way to release the material and protect the investigation, but "at the end of the day there is a larger issue and this is of the credibility of the United States."

During back-to-back hearings on Friday on detainee abuse convened by the House and Senate, members from both parties warned that American troops in Iraq were less secure, and the United States was less secure, because the depraved acts of detainee abuse have so ignited world anger. Some members of Congress have called on Mr. Rumsfeld to resign.

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, agreed that the public should view the images.

"It's best that this be seen for what it is," Senator Levin said. "Judgments then can be made by people. Any effort to hide this kind of material is just not going to work. We have an open society. We are proving it, I believe, by proceeding to investigate the way we are."

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who also serves on the Armed Services Committee, warned that scandals grow until information is released.

"Look, one thing I know about scandals: They go on and on and on until the American people feel they have a full and complete picture of what happened," Senator McCain said on "Fox News Sunday."

"And to hold back these pictures, or to hold back the videos and only show them to members of Congress or something like that, first, is foolish, because they'll leak out, but second of all, it is sending the wrong signal," he added.

But Senator McCain indicated that focusing on the images missed larger, more important questions, including whether the military police unit at Abu Ghraib, a notorious prison during the Hussein era, was acting on the specific orders of military intelligence to soften up detainees in advance of interrogation.

Senator Levin also warned that the degrading treatment of detainees might be "much more systemic than just a few guards abusing prisoners," and that it might have been part of a wider effort "to extract information from these prisoners."

"And this was part of a new intelligence policy which goes right on up to the Pentagon and perhaps even beyond," Senator Levin said.

He said that "some of the environment here was actually set at the White House when they said it was a bunch of legalisms to discuss whether or not the Geneva Conventions would apply to prisoners directly or whether they would be treated consistent with the Geneva Conventions or in the same way but not precisely."

This policy, Senator Levin said, was "splitting legal hairs about the application of Geneva Conventions, and it seems to me that sent exactly the wrong message to the intelligence people and to the guards themselves."