On Friday, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates used his newly granted authority to exempt photos of detainee abuse from Freedom of Information Act requests to block the release of several photographs that are the subject of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit from the ACLU. The White House-supported amendment granting the secretary of defense this authority was added to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill by Sen. Joe Lieberman.
I've been reluctant to blame the Obama administration for the Bush administration's failings. But the Obama administration, while making some laudable moves in the direction of transparency on some matters -- and behaving in a virtually indistinguishable manner in others -- has nevertheless, in many instances, taken on the responsibility of covering up the wrongdoing of his predecessor, whether it's through blocking judicial scrutiny of extraordinary rendition or now, censoring photos of detainee abuse. As that New York Times editorial from a few weeks ago noted, this is now "Barack Obama's coverup."
The stated reason for blocking these photographs is to protect American troops abroad from a backlash. Frankly, I'm not sure suppressing these photos makes American troops any more safe than they can be expected to be in two war zones -- but even if that's the case, I think allowing the government to cover up its own wrongdoing sets a terrible precedent.
What suppressing the photos probably also does is help prevent the kind of widespread public reaction to torture that we saw following the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. It's one thing to hear about torture in the abstract; it's another to see its effects visually. By suppressing the photographs, the White House is also circumventing potential criticism of its decision to seek as little accountability as possible for the behavior the pictures portray.
In China today, the president, discussing China's practice of Internet censorship, described himself as "a big supporter of non-censorship." Obviously not true across the board.
-- A. Serwer