Transparency 0, Terrible Burdens of Wielding Enormous Power 1


In a move precisely as surprising as President Obama's about-face on calling the Armenian genocide a "genocide" once he held the reins of power, your Transparency President has decided to abandon previously stated plans and go full Cheney when it comes to allowing for the release of photographs showing the U.S. torturing and defiling prisoners and detainees.

Obama defended his decision, saying publication of the photographs "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," Obama told reporters. "Moreover, I fear the publication of these photos may only have a chilling effect on future investigations of detainee abuse."

The first excuse is pure bunkum. Did the Abu Ghraib photos, which illustrated what had already been described in various reports, add to your understanding of the gravity/extent to what we were doing in the world? Yes, I believe it did. Images add value that words cannot convey.

The "chilling effect," too, is nonsensical. If anything, images increase public pressure on the government/military to conduct investigations in the first place (as in fact happened at Abu Ghraib). Who, exactly, would be getting chilled in this case? U.S. service personnel? Isn't it just as likely that they would become motivated witnesses for the prosecution?

The real reason here is just as it was four years ago, when I wrote a column about why we'll never see the second round of Abu Ghraib photos: It's that American governing class has learned its lesson:

[T]here 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.

In one sense Obama is right–the publication of these photos would complicate things for the United States in the world. But transparency isn't about temporal convenience to politicians and bureaucrats in power, it's about the bedrock conviction that maximally distributed knowledge will uncover malfeasance in such a way to prevent it and lesser crimes from happening again. There is nothing in Obama's justifications that couldn't have been used by Dick Cheney in preventing the initial images of Abu Ghraib from resurfacing in the first place. Americans, and non-Americans, deserve to know just what tactics are being used by the world's supercop as it polices the globe. If such knowledge makes Obama's upcoming visit to the Middle East interpersonally uncomfortable–a concept that was given enormous weight and sympathy by CNN as it covered this story yesterday–then that price itself is a useful metric for just how dire U.S. torture really is.

And by lacking confidence to air this publicly, the U.S. missed an opportunity to send a powerful message to the world: Not only do we no longer torture (in both word and deed), we take that notion seriously enough to withstand a public relations hit as we fully exhume the ghosts of a dishonorable seven-year policy. In a region of autocratic, torturous governments, I daresay such a message could have surprising resonance among the people alleged to hate us most.