The U.S. government can keep pictures of detainee abuse secret while it asks the Supreme Court to permanently block release of the photographs on the grounds they could incite violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, a federal appeals court said Thursday.
The one-paragraph ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan came after the Obama administration asked the court to keep the pictures secret so it could appeal to the nation's highest court.
The administration last month said the disturbing photographs pose "a clear and grave risk of inciting violence and riots against American and coalition forces, as well as civilian personnel, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan."
The appeals court stayed its order supporting a lower court judge's decision to order release of the photographs until the Supreme Court had a chance to consider the case.
The administration had indicated it was going to release the pictures until President Barack Obama reversed the decision.
Partially secret statements
To support its arguments, the government filed partially secret statements from two top U.S. generals, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno.
In the filings, Odierno, who commands the troops in Iraq, said the 2004 release of photos of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison "likely contributed to a spike in violence in Iraq" that year. Petraeus, who oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, said the images could also lead to more violence in Pakistan because it deals with Taliban attacks.
The American Civil Liberties Union had sought release of 21 pictures, saying the action would make the government more accountable and help bring an end to the abuse of prisoners.
"We are disappointed by this ruling," said ACLU lawyer Amrit Singh. "It further delays the disclosure of photographs that are critical to informing the debate about the treatment of U.S. prisoners."
Yusill Scribner, a spokeswoman for government lawyers in Manhattan, said the government had no comment.
In 2006, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in Manhattan had ordered the release of the pictures once identifying facial features were removed.
The color photographs were taken by service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. law allows restrictions when images could reasonably be expected to endanger someone's life or safety.
A need for specific threats
Last September, the appeals court agreed with Hellerstein, saying there needed to be specific threats for the pictures to be blocked.
"It is plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan," the appeals court said.
The appeals court noted at the time that the government had earlier used the same argument to try to prevent the release of 87 photographs and other images of detainees at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, including at Abu Ghraib.
International outrage resulted from images in the Iraqi prison showing physical abuse and sexual humiliation of inmates, including a picture of a naked, hooded prisoner on a box with wires fastened to his hands and genitals.
After those pictures were released over the Internet, the government dropped its appeal.
The appeals court noted in its September ruling that the U.S. championed the release of photographs after World War II that depicted emaciated prisoners, corpses of prisoners and powerless and subjugated detainees. The government believed wide dissemination of the pictures could help hold perpetrators accountable, it said.