Torture Photos: Is a public release necessary?


It depends on our purpose.

In October 2003,  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)  sent  a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)  request to the Departments of Defense,   Homeland Security,  Justice  and several  other Bush Administration agencies.  The request was for  documents related to the US Government’s role in the torture and/or rendition of individuals in its custody.  The ACLU claimed,  “[The  Government has] failed to address the numerous credible reports recounting the torture and rendition of Detainees.  Nor have they explained what measures, if any, the United States has taken  to ensure compliance with its legal obligations with respect to the use of torture and the infliction of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or  punishment.  [And] to determine whether the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

Bush Administration officials refused to release the “torture photos” because, according to them,  the photos would inflame the Middle East, put unidentified individuals, groups and in-theater military personnel at risk and would run afoul of  international laws  prohibiting the public parade and humiliation of war prisoners.

In September 2004,  the US District Court in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) stated,  “Congress enacted FOIA to illuminate government activities.  The law was intended to provide a means of accountability, to allow Americans to know what their government is doing….  Yet, the glacial pace at which defendant agencies have been responding… shows an indifference  to the commands of FOIA.”  The judge also noted,  “As of today, eleven months later, with small exception, no documents have been produced by [the Department of Defense, et al].”

The District Court ordered the public release of  the photos after viewing a representative sample in camera (e.g. in the privacy of the Judge’s chambers).  Since then, the Federal judiciary has consistently ordered that the photos and other pertinent  documents be  redacted and released in compliance with national and international laws that prohibit the public humiliation of prisoners.

In August 2006,  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the SDNY’s order to release the photos after  noting that the Bush Administration had interpreted certain legislative amendments to FOIA as “a diffuse and nebulous authority for keeping inflammatory information secret (though, curiously, only inflammatory information in law enforcement files).”  The Court continued, “Release of the photographs is likely to further the purposes of the Geneva Conventions by deterring future abuse of prisoners.”

On April 23, 2009,  the Obama Justice Department informed the Court that the Department of Defense would release its photos by May 28, 2009.

On May 13, 2009, nearly six years after the ACLU issued its first FOIA request, President Obama’s Justice Department informed the Court that the President had changed his mind,  “…upon further reflection at the highest levels of Government, the Government has decided to pursue further options regarding that decision…”  including a possible appeal to the US Supreme Court by June 9, 2009.

Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs expressed President Obama’s concern that release of the photographs would inflame the Middle East and increase the threat to US personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Obama team does not believe the Bush Administration adequately portrayed those risks in its Court filings and appeals.

Yesterday, The Huffington Post carried this ACLU response, “These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib….  Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse.”

The U.S.  Federal Rules of Evidence state, “Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice… or needless presentation of cumulative evidence.”  In short,  not all relevant evidence is equal or admissible. A judge must determine whether its value as evidence substantially outweighs its potential harm.

There’s also a notion in civil societies  that an inflamed person is unlikely to be judicious.

Is it reasonable to believe that “The Amorphous Middle East” would be inflamed by a 24-7  media blitz of photos in which an occupying military force tortures citizens of  foreign lands?  Will “The Amorphous Middle East” see the photos as evidence  of the  Bush Foreign Policy, distinct from Obama’s?  And,  will that Middle East view efforts to hide the photos as a continuation of Bush policies?

One friend I spoke with said she wants the photos disseminated publicly. “Maybe pictures will  make Americans feel shame.  Maybe pictures will provoke an American conversation about who we really are and what ethics we really believe in.  Maybe it’ll force the politicians to really do something.”

Maybe;  but I doubt  the photos will stimulate the American public to a greater outrage.   Many of the people I know have been outrage- saturated by a plethora of criminal actions and a dearth of incarcerations.  Thankfully, the ACLU has a ton of arrows in its quiver.

Germany was shamed after World War I and a handful of years later we fought World War II.   We fire-bombed Germany during World War II and held them to account at Nuremburg. Germany is now home to one of the world’s fastest growing populations of Skinheads and other xenophobes.  Whether or not  cause and effect can be proved  in those examples,  they tell us  that shame is not a cure-all.

Our purpose, as opined by  the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, should be to deter “future abuse of prisoners”  and to ensure, as the ACLU demands,  that  “the United States is honoring its obligations under domestic and international law….”

We have a system of justice intended to do just that.  We place the accused on trial.  We hear the evidence against and for  them.  We release or punish them.  As a matter of course,  we  parade our convicted felons publicly.  We hope that their shame will deter others – will demonstrate our adherence to the rule of law.

With that in mind, whether the photos are released publicly or viewed in camera or by a jury,  the real issue is not which evidence will be presented (there’s tons) but rather, will Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Dick Cheney, et al stand in the dock.  Will they be paraded publicly to cleanse rather than inflict shame?

A public trial of those who conceived and implemented the torture policy would stimulate a discussion about the American ethic and reassure the world of our honorable intention to uphold our ideals. Without that,  publishing the photos is just more Bread & Circuses and I fear, provocation.

******

Legal documents at ACLU website

The Week That Was: Words & Brainstorms


It’s been a  flurry all week.  Here’s a collection of pieces:

US Army and Marines report a sharp escalation in soldier and veteran suicides.  (LA Times)  Caregivers on the front lines cited, among other issues, more and longer deployments, family stress, hopelessness, drugs, alcohol and extreme psychological fatigue.

In the Senate Banking Committee Hearing (Chaired by Sen. Chris Dodd),  Paul Volcker, former Federal Reserve Chairman and Obama advisor offered,  “…other nations regulate the risk of  functions  rather than of entities  or particular business models.”  

 (Author note:  our present system regulates banks, for instance, but  the function of mortgage-backed securities slipped through the jurisdictional cracks of  twenty understaffed  regulatory agencies.  (See CSPAN videos.)

In the same hearing, Gene  Dodaro, Acting Comptroller General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office and Elizabeth Warren, Chair of  the Congressional Oversight Panel for the TARP  described faultlines in our financial structure and offered comments:  (1)  it’s inefficient, ineffective and inflexible; (2) it permits inadequate disclosures by credit institutions; (3)  the “financial illiteracy” of the populace  and inadequate disclosures by institutions combined to create predatory loans with incomprehensible terms; (4)  Federal and State jurisdictional issues created holes in oversight/regulation;  (5) institutions that originated loans passed the risk to other institutions without keeping “skin in the game”;  (6) we need  new ways to value  the debt because we don’t know who’s holding it or what it’s  worth;  (6)  current compensation models  encourage bad loans because there’s little or no  risk to the  originating broker. 

In an umbrella statement,  Dodaro described the current  financial model as pitting consumer protection against economic growth and urged Congress  to recognize that growth is impossible without the  trust and health of the consumer.

Senator Mark Warren referenced financial illiteracy  and  the  lack of regulation that’s allowed lenders and insurance companies to prey on our soldiers and their  families.

Witnesses in the hearing  concurred that:  (1)  we don’t know where the bailout funds are;  (2)  institutions who received funds feel no obligation  to reveal what they did with them; and regardless,  (3)  the bailout has not  significantly improved the flow of investments or loans; and (4) small business failures  and foreclosures are escalating.

Obama, stumping for the Stimulus Plan, described it as a strategy, not a piecemeal, temporary fix.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) told homeowners to stay in their homes when they’re foreclosed.  She told Amy Goodman (Democracy Now)  “…there’s a number people can call:  (888-995-HOME)  to get the proper legal representation so they can actually have the scales of justice be balanced rather than, now, all the power to Wall Street and none of the justice to Main Street.” 

(Author note:   When tenants were thrown out of their homes in the 1920s and ’30s,  their neighbors and activists overcame dogs, sheriff ‘s deputies and head-cracking batons to haul each other’s belongings back inside.)

Obama:  Companies  that receive TARP funds will limit executive compensation to $500,000.  This has caused corporations to worry they won’t be able to “attract the best talent.”   (Rewarding incompetence seems to have worked so well for all of us.)  

Aren’t our Graduate Schools  loaded with financial and administrative wizards?  Let them take take the mound and relegate  the Geithners,  Summers, Rubins and financiers to advisory positions in the dugout.  One idea is that executive officers be rewarded only after their policies result in  sustained profit growth over a number of years.  (No more $18 billion bonuses for collapsing a world economy in a single year.)

National Prayer Breakfast  and broadening of the old “faith-based” service model. My agnostic self is staying out of this one but my community organizer is shouting “hallelujah!”   (Perhaps the idea would be less offensive if we called it a “National Meditational Breakfast.)   “Community Service”  is, apparently,  fertile ground for another “Moral Majority” showdown.  It reminds me of  the efforts peace activists made  “to take back the flag”  after Bush invaded Iraq.  Obama’s model incorporates secular groups and recognizes a place for both secular and religious organizations.  My objection would be  to  religious bias dictating  what, how and to whom our civil services are provided.  (See:  First Amendment on separation of Church & State:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”)  Certainly, stringent guidelines must be enforced if  community service is to remain free of  religious dogma.

According to Bloomberg News  on February 4, 2009“Bank of America’s CEO (Kenneth Lewis) told employees that his management team and strategy have the board’s support and January results were ‘encouraging’ as turmoil in the credit markets eased.”  

The  very next day, “Bank of America’s  (BAC) shares  fell as low as $3.77 before finishing up 14 cents at $4.84.  The bank’s shares had fallen for five days prior to Thursday.”  (In the period from  January 1, 2009 to February 5, 2009 — 36 days — BAC has fallen from $14.08 to $4.56.)  No kidding,  some pundits are wondering whether Lewis is the “right guy for the job.”

Bank of America still won’t let people sully their great glass windows with community announcements.

Today,  “January’s sharp drop in employment brings job losses to 3.6 million since the start of the recession in December 2007 and…about half the decline occurred in the last three months.  January’s losses followed upwardly revised cuts of 577,000 in December and 597,000 in November.”  (CNBC

In an Orwellian way,  these unemployment numbers are good news because coincidentally, average hourly wages have risen from 0.3-0.4%  over last year. I guess that’s what happens when mass layoffs and retail closings  eliminate low wage earners from the statistical pool.

And finally, 14 year old actess  Dakota Fanning  strode  pencil-thin  onto the stage of late night television in a pair of  spiked heels.

Election Day, Veterans’ Day and Thanksgiving


In early  November,  we come together on Election Day to cast our votes — to  pick the candidate whose  priorities and manner  we most approve.  It’s hard to beat the excitement of an Election Day that dawns on millions of citizens  re-enlisting in the future of our Republic.

On November 11th, Veterans’ Day, many of us  honor the military service of our men and women.  We stand in mourning beside their families.  We visit them in crowded  VA hospitals.  We see them in divorce courts or on sidewalks outside  homeless shelters.

According to emails exchanged by a  VA physician (Dr. Katz)  and The VA’s Assistant Deputy of Health in 2007:

“18 veterans kill themselves every day and this is confirmed by the VA’s own statistics.  Is that true?  Sounds awful but if one is considering 24 million veterans.”  That same day, Dr. Katz responded: “There are about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans.”

Despite our poor track record in caring for our veterans, the earliest European settlers in The New World intended to defend and protect them.  The Plymouth Colony legislated pensions for veterans of the “Indian Wars”  (1636).  However, the vague language of the old law should be noted  (bold added for emphasis):

“That in case necessity require to send [forces] abroade …  any that shall goe returne  maymed [and]  hurt he shall be mayntayned competently by the Colony duringe his life.”

In 1930, Congress established the Veterans’ Administration  in order to streamline its provision of services.  Unfortunately,  a system of  shell games  was promulgated  wherein  services were underfunded by the Feds and under-delivered  by the States.

Thanksgiving is the third of our November days  and through the years, its date and purpose have been remarkably fluid.

Residents of  The Virginia Colony gave thanks to God in 1619 at the end of their grueling journey across the Atlantic.

In 1621, The Plymouth Colony gave thanks to God for the bountiful harvest.  In years to come, they would fast in prayer and penance when their stores ran thin.

When wars ended in victory, our political councils decreed that the populace should rejoice before God and praise Him.  In Charlestown, Massachusetts, for instance,  the good people gave praise and thanks in 1671 for their “advantages” over,  and  defeat of,  “the Heathen Natives.”

In our darkest national moments,  the people have been urged to praise God officially and pray for Divine Intervention. On November 1, 1777,  The Continental Congress declared the first National Day of Thanksgiving.  By its language and exhortations, the early legislature seemed to hope that  the nation’s piety would appease The Almighty;  that soldiers and commanders would gain vital courage from the Colonies’ renewed bond with The Father.

The next month,  General George Washington declared another day of Thanksgiving after the Continental Army’s victory  at Saratoga.

During the Depression, depending on whether November had four or five weeks in a given year,  Franklin D.Roosevelt  designated Thanksgiving  the third or fourth Thursday of the month (1939 and 1940).  Roosevelt   had hopes that an  additional week of consumer spending  between Thanksgiving and Christmas would  stimulate the broken economy.

How would it be if we designated November as our national month of remembrance?

What if every November we studied The Constitution — the only thing our soldiers are sworn to defend and protect.

We could renew our gratitude for religious freedom.

We could study the peoples and cultures we usurped when we swarmed the continent.

We could learn from our history.  We could develop humility.

We could teach our children civility and the richness of debate.

We could designate Election Day a  National Holiday — a national day of citizenship and conscience.

Perhaps  our Veterans would fare better if our political will was more comprehensively pricked.

*   *   *   *

Much of the information in this article can be found at The Veterans’ Administration’s (VA) history pagehttp://www1.va.gov/opa/feature/history/docs/history1.pdf,    The Plymouth Colony Archive Project: http://www.histarch.uiuc.edu/plymouth/laws1.html ;  the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs http://veterans.house.gov/news/PRArticle.aspx?NewsID=242 ; and Early America’s Thanksgiving pages:   http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/firsts/thanksgiving/

As a matter of medical interest, you might visit The Veterans’ Administration’s  Research & Development page: http://www.research.va.gov/