The Obama administration on Friday asked the Supreme Court to block the release of disturbing pictures of detainee abuse on grounds their disclosure could incite violence in Afghanistan and Iraq and endanger U.S. troops there.
The administration took the issue to the high court after President Barack Obama in May reversed a decision to stop fighting the release of the photographs.
They were ordered released as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Bush administration had also fought their release, and lost.
The 21 color photographs were taken by service members in Iraq and Afghanistan and were part of criminal investigations of alleged abuse. Some pictures show "soldiers pointing pistols or rifles at the heads of hooded and handcuffed detainees," Solicitor General Elena Kagan said in her filing with the high court.
In one picture, "a soldier holds a broom as if 'sticking its end into the rectum of a restrained detainee,'" Kagan said, quoting from an investigation report prepared by the Pentagon. Two investigations led to criminal charges and convictions, she said.
Kagan said the military has identified more than two dozen additional pictures that could be affected by the court's ruling.
The most likely outcome of the release of the pictures "would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger," Obama said in May, an argument reflected in Friday's filing.
The government made much the same argument to prevent the release of 87 photographs and other images of detainees at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
International outrage resulted when photographs from the Iraqi prison showing physical abuse and sexual humiliation of inmates were revealed. One picture showed a naked, hooded prisoner on a box with wires fastened to his hands and genitals.
The government dropped its appeal related to those photographs after they were made public over the Internet.
Legal fights continue
The ACLU, in seeking the other pictures, said the government had long argued that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was isolated and was an aberration.
Federal law allows the government to withhold documents that could reasonably be expected to endanger someone's life or safety, but the lower courts have said that exemption was meant for instances where threats were specific.
Indeed, having lost its legal fight, the administration had decided not to ask the Supreme Court to intervene.
But Obama changed course soon after the release of memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques, and resulting criticism. His decision to order the high court appeal also prevented distribution of the photographs just before he visited Egypt in June.
Legislation that already has passed the Senate would allow the Pentagon to withhold photographs depicting the treatment of detainees. The bill has not been voted on in the House.