Judge orders release of Iraq, Afghanistan detainee photos

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(CNN) – A federal judge has ordered the Defense Department to release photos that allegedly show detainees being abused in detention centers in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush administration.

The photos won’t be made public right away. In an order issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein of the Southern District of New York granted the government 60 days to appeal.

The ACLU sued the Defense Department in 2003 to have the photos made public. It’s not clear how many photos are involved or where the pictures were taken, but in an August opinion Hellerstein said the government acknowledged having at least 29 pictures from at least seven different locations in Afghanistan and Iraq and may have hundreds or thousands more.

Some of the photos may have come from the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In 2004, photos became public that showed American soldiers abusing Abu Ghraib detainees and putting them into humiliating sexual positions. People in the Mideast and Americans were outraged and shocked by the photos, which added to the national debate on the use of torture in the war on terror.

Hellerstein said the government failed to prove its argument that releasing the photos would endanger American soldiers or civilians overseas.

In July 2011, the judge blocked release of the photos at the urging of the secretary of defense because U.S. troops were still fighting in Iraq.

By December 2011, most U.S. ground troops had withdrawn from Iraq, the judge wrote, and he didn’t know whether release of the photos would affect military operations.

“Three years is a long time in war, the news cycle and the international debate over how to respond to terrorism,” he wrote.

The judge also said the government failed to convince him a collective review of the photos met the requirements of the Protected National Security Documents Act. The ACLU argued the Defense Department must individually review each photo and explain why its release would put Americans in danger.

Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director, said in a statement that the photos are “the best evidence of what took place in the military’s detention centers, and their disclosure would help the public better understand the implications of some of the Bush administration’s policies.”

A response by the Pentagon to the judge’s decision was not immediately available.

The Pentagon has refused to release the photos requested by the ACLU, saying publication could endanger American soldiers and civilians overseas.

Several U.S. military leaders who saw some of the pictures made that argument in a December 19 filing in the lawsuit.

They pointed to public demonstrations in Mideast countries that followed reports of Quran burnings, the release of the video “Innocence of the Muslims” and the 2012 release of a video that showed Americans soldiers urinating on dead enemy combatants.

Navy Rear Adm. Sinclair Harris of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Islamist extremist groups like ISIS use “imagery associated with United States detention practices” as part of their recruiting efforts.

The ACLU responded by saying the military leaders didn’t see all the photos, just a sampling selected by an army lawyer.

The ACLU also said the leaders didn’t explain how the photos were “similarly inflammatory.” Their prediction of anti-American violence was only speculation, the ACLU said.

“To allow the government to suppress any image that might provoke someone, somewhere, to violence would be to give the government sweeping power to suppress evidence of its own agents’ misconduct,” Jaffer of the ACLU said.

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