During the Bush administration's tenure, government transparency was hardly a top priority. In as much as Barack Obama's election was a referendum on what Bush did wrong - and there was a long list among voters - creating a culture of transparency and access in the executive branch has been a stated objective for Obama. Rightly so. However, in announcing a decision to keep classified photographs of prisoners being abused at detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is showing colors uncomfortably reminiscent of his predecessor.
Citing the photographs' potential to foment sufficient anti-Americanism to endanger troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama on Wednesday announced his plans to fight their release - a reversal of his earlier position that the photographs should be made public. The images are a combination of personal snapshots taken by soldiers, similar to those depicting abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, and photographs taken by military investigators who were documenting abuse claims. The collection is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which won support from a federal trial court and an appeals court panel for its request that the images be released. In his decision to fight the agreement that came after those rulings, Obama has turned an unfortunate direction.
While troop safety is certainly the paramount concern of the commander in chief - and should be carefully considered with all access and transparency decision - it is difficult to imagine how images that are five years old could pose a legitimate threat, particularly when there has been a marked reversal in the culture that allowed the pictured abuse to occur. The images' release would reopen old wounds to some degree, but would do so against a backdrop of dramatically changed policies and politics. Publishing the photographs could very well serve to reinforce Obama's - and Defense Secretary Robert Gates' - goals of redeeming the United States' image in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the globe by more thoughtfully executing the war efforts.
And releasing the images would do much to signify Obama's commitment to transparency - and righting some of the wrongs he inherited. That is an effort he should make at every opportunity, this one in particular, given how symbolic Abu Ghraib and similar prisoner abuse is to the American public and the world of missteps in Iraq by the Bush administration. By bringing those images into the light, however glaring, Obama could have demonstrated a crucial recognition and condemnation of the abuses depicted, the culture that allowed them to occur and his commitment to ensuring that they never do again.
Nevertheless, troop safety is a fundamental consideration and, on advice from Gates - who also had previously supported releasing the images - Obama has erred on the side of caution. That is understandable logic, to be sure, but it may not have been all that was in play. In keeping the images from the public, Obama has thrown a political bone to some of his conservative critics - including his opponent in November's election - who have long opposed releasing the photographs. The accolades Obama is earning from Sen. John McCain and others may help Obama build an image of nonpartisanship, but at a cost to a core value he espoused on the campaign trail and in his first days on the job.
That is hardly a bargain.