President Obama once pledged that his government would be the most transparent in history — a claim that is often mocked by civil libertarians and other critics who accuse him of almost Nixonian secrecy policies and inclinations. That troubling record is playing out again before U.S District Court Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.
The Administration continues to fight to withhold over 2,000 images of torture and abuse of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan simply because it would make the United States look bad. Ironically, there is a transparent element to this case. Few Administration have been so transparently obvious in their use of classification rule to simply bar the disclosure of information that would be embarrassing to officials or the government.
Usually, the Justice Department attempts to spin a tale of some other national security rationale for non-disclosure. Here, however, there is nothing even plausible to come up with. The Obama Administration simply wants to deep six the photos because people would be really angry if they saw what the government did, including photos that are believed to be far worse than those Abu Ghraib (like the one above).
Hellerstein gave the Justice Department until December 12th to come a rational explanation why each individual photograph has been withheld from the public. In 2009, Obama insisted that disclosing the photos would “further inflame anti-American opinion.” However, that rationale could be used for wholesale cover ups and information controls by the government. The government never wants bad information to come out and would prefer to say that it is protecting the public from any backlash. This includes criticism of Obama’s pledge, soon after being elected, not to allow the prosecution of officials responsible for the torture program. Whatever the backlash, it is far more dangerous to allow the government to pick and choose what “bad news” or bad images will reach the public. The photographs are also important for historians and academics in fully documenting this period of history.
Such censorship is more likely to be an effort to manage domestic public opinion than it is extreme foreign elements. If Obama can do this on detainees, the next president can use the same power in countless other areas. Obama supporters have been willfully blind to the precedent that they are creating in such positions.
The Obama Administration has set the record for censoring information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The penchant for secrecy in this Administration is creating a new level of government control over information that will likely be replicated by the next Administration. No administration wants to release negative information unless it has to do so. That latter prospect is now in the hands of Judge Hellerstein.