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NEW YORK The U.S. Department of Defense must
release a cache of photos showing how Army personnel treated
detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison and other sites in Iraq and
Afghanistan, a federal judge ruled on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein in Manhattan said the
release was proper because departing Defense Secretary Ash
Carter failed to show why publishing the photos would endanger
Americans deployed outside the United States.
Hellerstein’s decision is a victory for the American Civil
Liberties Union and other civil and veterans rights groups whose
lawsuit seeking the photos under the federal Freedom of
Information Act began in 2004.
Photos depicting abuse at Abu Ghraib began to emerge in
2004, with some detainees claiming to have endured physical and
sexual abuse, electric shocks and mock executions.
The number of photos sought in the lawsuit has not been
disclosed but has been estimated at roughly 2,000, according to
the Congressional Record and court papers.
“Those photos, representing a sad episode in our history,
are a matter of great public interest and historical importance,
which should not, in a democracy like ours, be shielded from
public view,” said Lawrence Lustberg, a lawyer for the
plaintiffs. “The court has wisely reaffirmed our nation’s
commitment to open government.”
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan,
whose office defended Carter’s decision, declined to comment.
After Hellerstein in March 2015 ordered the release of
additional photos, Carter allowed the release of 198 but kept
the remainder under wraps, citing a review of a “representative
sample” by four high-ranking generals.
In Wednesday’s decision, Hellerstein said the U.S. troop
presence in Iraq had fallen to about 5,000 from more than
100,000 at the start of the Obama administration, and that those
remaining now serve as advisers rather than in combat.
The judge said that while risks remained, including that
portions of Iraq had been “overrun” by the Islamic State, he
could not blindly accept withholding the remaining photos.
“I take seriously the level of deference owed to the
executive branch in the realm of national security decision
making,” he wrote. “My complaint is that the executive has
failed to articulate the reasons supporting its conclusion that
release of the photos would endanger Americans deployed abroad.”
Hellerstein first ordered the release of photos in 2005, but
Congress later authorized withholding photos whose release could
The case is American Civil Liberties Union et al v.
Department of Defense et al, U.S. District Court, Southern
District of New York, No. 04-04151.
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