Roundtable on Obama's Photo Decision

Roundtable on Obama's Photo Decision

By Special Report With Bret Baier - May 13, 2009


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The publication of these photos would not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.

In fact, 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.


BRET BAIER, HOST: Well, that was the president today in a sharp reversal of a decision he made, agreeing with the Pentagon, to release pictures, photos that show alleged abuse by military personnel of detainees, agreeing in a case of the American Civil Liberties Union to release these photographs.

The ACLU not happy today, releasing this quote: "The decision to not release the photographs makes a mockery of President Obama's promise of transparency and accountability. It is essential these photographs be released so that the public can examine for itself the full scale and scope of prisoner abuse that was conducted in its name."

Let's bring in our panel: Juan Williams, news analyst for National Public Radio; Nina Easton, Washington bureau chief of Fortune magazine, and Steve Hayes, senior writer for The Weekly Standard.

Steve, your thoughts?

STEVE HAYES, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think the ACLU response is a little bit hysterical. I think they said that now the Obama administration is complicit in Bush administration torture. I think that's a little extreme.

I think he deserves credit for making a good decision, for making a thoughtful decision. And I'm told, having talked to some people about this, that he did this in part, at least, as a result of conversations that he had with senior military officials, including those responsible for winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who pressed him very hard and said this would really cause us problems as we try to win in Afghanistan and as we try to pull back from Iraq.

BAIER: Yes, we are hearing General Ray Odierno really made a full-court press to have these not released - Nina?

NINA EASTON, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, FORTUNE MAGAZINE: It's one of those flip-flops - if we can call it that - that I think was welcome and incredibly responsible on the president's part.

By the way, I think it's also politically astute, because if, for example, these inflammatory photos were released and if, for example, a terrorist got a hold of American soldiers and decided to retaliate with some kind of high profile beatings of them, I think that Democrats would pay a big political price. So I think it was a good political move.

What's going to happen, though, is that it's not clear that this -the legal system will move in the direction of keeping these blocked. I think the ACLU is probably right when they say that the second circuit has already ruled on it. The district judge has ruled on it. The national security concerns have already been raised, already been hashed out.

I'm told by legal scholars that the odds of the Supreme Court granting certain - actually accepting this for review - are not very high. It is not a likely thing.

So the thing that the president should do and could do down the line is issue an executive order that would provide an exemption for the Freedom of Information Act during wartime. I think that's probably the legal route that would really block this.

BAIER: Because then, Juan, that is interesting, the White House saying that the president felt that the legal argument wasn't really played out in the court on the national security issue and he wants to go back to the courts.

However, he could sign the order and make it moot.


But what the court said that it was speculative that, in fact, this would further endanger American troops, that there is no way to know that. And secondly, the court said, this has come before us and we have decided that as a function of the Freedom of Information Act, the only way you can get a waiver from releasing these photos is if you can prove that you would endanger somebody. And they said that just wasn't there, again, coming back to this speculative argument.

The argument I think now becomes a legal argument. And, in part, you would have to say that this is a political decision by President Obama.

President Obama previously was saying he had no choice in the matter. He wasn't going to simply extend it because he didn't believe that he could win and he wasn't going to force it on the high court and, as Nina pointed out, it's unlikely the high court will take it.

But here he is now as someone who is clearly listening to his military commanders, someone who is sensitive to the Pentagon. I think this is a clear message from the administration: When it comes to military matters we are with you; we are with the men and women who are out there fighting.

It comes at a time when we are putting more people on the found in Afghanistan, amping up efforts that will extend into Pakistan. We still have almost 150,000 people in Iraq, don't forget. People tend to whiz right by that. So this is at a dangerous moment and I think he's sensitive to that timing issue.

BAIER: And one point on the quantitative analysis. After the Abu Ghraib pictures were released, military commanders said ten days after the attacks went up 200 percent in Iraq. That is kind quantitative on the ground in Iraq.

WILLIAMS: Here they are saying, though, military people are saying that these pictures are not as bad as the pictures from Abu Ghraib - that you have some nudity, but that's about it.

BAIER: What about the left's reaction? I have already seen the blogs heating up. They're just livid that the president is not standing up for this and releasing this, and transparency.

They point to this quote on his second day: "I will hold myself as president to a new standard of openness. Information will not be withheld just because I say so."

You've got one article says he is "neocon-in-chief" already. Go ahead, Nina.

EASTON: I just think that they don't get the point that transparency and accountability come right head to head up with protecting the national security time and time again.

This is not something that's just new in the history of this country. This is a classic clash. They have an interest in transparency and accountability. And I think the president is finding out his main interest is national security.

HAYES: Yes, but this, I think, just underscores the difficulty he faces in actually governing, as opposed to campaigning and saying things like my administration is going to be the most transparent in the history of the country.

Now you have to make these decisions, and you have people like Ray Odierno and others saying this isn't speculative. The court may say it is speculative, but I think Ray Odierno is saying we have data that shows that this isn't speculative - attacks will increase.

And those are pretty compelling arguments, I think, for the president.

WILLIAMS: You know, the thing is that the argument from the left would be that those pictures are important to prove the scope and extent of abuse of detainees or prisoners and that it ties into the larger conversations taking place here in Washington about the Bush administration offering rationalizations from the Justice Department for engaging in enhanced interrogation, but that this was widespread.

BAIER: And what about the argument about critics who said this administration left these memos out, but now is closing the door on releasing these photos?

WILLIAMS: Well, the photos, it seems to me - we know what happened in the photos and they are after the fact. The clear implication of the investigations and memos is: Was there an effort by the Bush administration to break the law and knowingly do so in terms of allowing torture to take place?

BAIER: Any analogy at all to the two?

HAYES: I would just point out that, clearly with the release of the memos, I think there was an argument that that was going to be politically advantageous for the administration.

Here, I think, if he puts these photos out, he will get a lot of questions, particularly from members of the military, why are you doing this? And there wasn't an obvious answer. I think that made it politically difficult for them to do that.


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