A few dozen of the photos, allegedly depicting prisoner mistreatment, were scheduled to be released by the end of this month, and Pentagon officials were considering releasing other related photos.
Obama has tasked his lawyers to take another look at the arguments already made in court that releasing the photos could be a threat to troops on the ground.
“This is not a situation in which the Pentagon has concealed or sought to justify inappropriate action,” the president said today. “Rather, it has gone through the appropriate and regular processes, and the individuals who were involved have been identified and appropriate actions have been taken.”
Obama said publication of these photos would not add to understanding of “what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.”
“In fact,” he said, “the most direct consequence of releasing them, I believe, would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
His decision to fight release of the photos doesn’t mean he condones mistreatment of detainees, the president emphasized.
“I have made it very clear to all who are within the chain of command … that the abuse of detainees in our custody is prohibited and will not be tolerated,” he said. “I have repeated that since I’ve been in office, Secretary Gates understands that, [Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] understands that, and that has been communicated across the chain of command.
“Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable,” Obama continued. “It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.”
Intense pressure by military commanders concerned over a possible backlash against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan caused the president to reconsider, White House officials said. And Gates agrees that their release could put troops in harm’s way, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
“The defense secretary has always been concerned about releasing these photos, because of the impact it could have in the region and the potential for making it more difficult for our troops to accomplish their mission and increase the danger to them as they are conducting their operations,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. “The threat to our fielded forces has not been fully developed and presented in front of the court.”
Whitman said Gates has been concerned about backlash all along. “The secretary has been consistent in his concern about the potential impact of the photos,” he said.
With 200,000 troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the approach of the May 28 deadline caused more frequent and intense pressure from commanders. Most vocal was Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, officials said.
“Certainly, the anxiety levels went up across the government. They went up here, they went up with our commanders,” Whitman said. “There’s no doubt that people became even more concerned as we approached the date on which we agreed to release these photographs.”
But officials said the timing of the release of the photos with respect to operations in Afghanistan is “particularly threatening.” More than 20,000 troops are slated to hit the ground there, the fighting season is in full swing, and elections are slated for August.
Officials said the photos had potential to incite violence, as well as to become recruiting tools for terrorists.