The images, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Congress, depict "acts that can only be described as blatantly sadistic, cruel, and inhuman." After Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) viewed some of them in a classified briefing, he testified that his "stomach gave out." NBC News reported that they show "American soldiers beating one prisoner almost to death, apparently raping a female prisoner, acting inappropriately with a dead body, and taping Iraqi guards raping young boys." Everyone who saw the photographs and videos seemed to shudder openly when contemplating what the reaction would be when they eventually were made public.
But they never were. After the first batch of Abu Ghraib images shocked the world on April 28, 2004, becoming instantly iconic—a hooded prisoner standing atop a box with electrodes attatched to his hands, Pfc. Lynndie England dragging a naked prisoner by a leash, England and Spc. Charles Graner giving a grinning thumbs-up behind a stack of human meat—no substantial second round ever came, either from Abu Ghraib or any of the other locations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay where abuses have been alleged. ABC News broadcast two new photos from the notorious Iraq prison on May 19, The Washington Post printed a half-dozen on May 20 and three more on June 10, and that was it.
"It refutes the glib claim that everything leaks sooner or later," says the Federation of American Scientists' Steven Aftergood, who makes his living finding and publishing little-known government information and fighting against state secrecy. "While there may be classified information in the papers almost every day, there's a lot more classified information that never makes it into the public domain."
It's not for lack of trying, at least from outside the government. Aftergood, for example, sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the Defense Department on May 12, asking generally for "photographic and video images of abuses committed against Iraqi prisoners" and specifically for the material contained on three compact discs mentioned by Rumsfeld in his testimony. The Defense Department told him to ask the U.S. Central Command, which sent him back to Defense, which said on second thought try the Army's Freedom of Information Department, which forwarded him to the Army's Crime Records Center, which hasn't yet responded. "It's not as if this is somehow an obscure matter that no one's quite ever heard of," Aftergood notes.
Officials have given two legal reasons for suppressing images of prisoner abuse: "unwarranted invasion of privacy" and the potential impact on law enforcement. The Freedom of Information Act's exemptions 6 and 7 (as these justifications are known, respectively) have been used repeatedly to rebuff the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which since October 2003 has unearthed more than 600 torture-related government documents but zero images.
The privacy objection is easily answered: Why not just obscure any identifying features? The law enforcement question, which has a firmer legal footing, is whether distribution of the images could "deprive a person of a fair trial or an impartial adjudication." Yet even there, the globally publicized photographs of Charles Graner, for instance, were ruled by a military judge to be insufficient grounds to declare his trial unfair. And Graner, sentenced to 10 years for his crimes, is the only one of the eight charged Abu Ghraib soldiers to contest his case in court.
"We've seen virtually no criminal investigations or criminal prosecutions," says ACLU staff attorney Jameel Jaffer, who plans to challenge the nondisclosure in court. "The vast majority of those photographs and videotapes don't relate to ongoing criminal investigations; on the contrary they depict things that the government approved of at the time and maybe approves of now."
Legalities are one thing, but the real motivation for choking off access is obvious: Torture photos undermine support for the Iraq war. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, "If these are released to the public, obviously it's going to make matters worse."
The Abu Ghraib photos did more to kneecap right-wing support for the Iraq war, and put a dent in George Bush's approval ratings, than any other single event in 2004. Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote two glum pieces about "the failure to understand the consequences of American power"; The Washington Post's George Will called for Rumsfeld's head; blogger Andrew Sullivan turned decisively against the president he once championed; and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned: "We risk losing public support for this conflict. As Americans turned away from the Vietnam War, they may turn away from this one."
News analyses about the war coalition's crackup competed for front-page space with the Abu Ghraib reports for nearly two weeks, until a videotape emerged showing American civilian Nick Berg getting his head sawed off in Iraq. Suddenly, editorialists were urging us to "keep perspective" about "who we're fighting against."
By that time, the executive and legislative branches had learned their lesson: Don't release images. The day after the Berg video, members of Congress were allowed to see a slide show of 1,800 Abu Ghraib photographs. The overwhelming response, besides revulsion, was, in the words of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.), that the pictures "should not be made public." "I feel," Warner said, "that it could possibly endanger the men and women of the armed forces as they are serving and at great risk."
Just before former White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, author of two memos relating to interrogation methods and the Geneva Conventions, faced confirmation hearings to become attorney general, there were press whispers that the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin (D-Mich.), might choose the occasion to force more disclosure of torture photos. It didn't happen. "He and Senator Warner," says Levin spokeswoman Tara Andringa, "are on the same page."
As is, no doubt, a good percentage of the U.S. population. Public opinion of journalism has long since plummeted below confidence levels in government. Prisoner abuse wasn't remotely an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign, let alone an electoral millstone for the governing party. The mid-January discovery of photographs showing British soldiers abusing Iraqis barely caused a ripple in the States. Neither did the Associated Press' December publication of several new photos of Navy SEALs vamping next to injured and possibly tortured prisoners (prompting the New York Post to demand an apology from…the Associated Press).
As The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto put it, with great cynicism and possibly great accuracy, "if the Democrats really think that belaboring complaints about harsh treatment of the enemy is the way to 'score points with the public,' they're more out of touch than we thought."
Looking ahead to the next four years, there is little doubt that the administration, its supporters, and Congress will use whatever legal means are available to prevent Abu Ghraib—the public relations problem, not the prisoner abuse—from happening again. The Defense Department has commissioned numerous studies about America's problem with "public diplomacy" since the September 11 massacre; all those compiled since last May hold up the iconic torture images as the perfect example of what not to let happen again.
"The Pentagon realizes that it's images that sell the story," Aftergood says. "The reason that there is a torture scandal is because of those photographs. There can be narratives of things that are much worse, but if they aren't accompanied by photos, they somehow don't register….The Abu Ghraib photos are sort of the military equivalent of the Rodney King case….And I hate to attribute motives to people I don't know, but it is easy to imagine that the officials who are withholding these images have that fact in mind."