Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The limits of transparency

Perhaps transparency isn’t always morally superior to keeping some things private.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan has just  ruled that 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. The one-paragraph ruling by the came after the Obama administration asked the court to keep the pictures secret so it could appeal to the nation’s highest court.

The ACLU and others whose moral compass is almost always pointed in the right direction, continues to call for the release of the photos of torture at Guantanamo because, says Anthony Romero, ACLU Director,

   “– as painful as it is — confronting the evidence of what was done is essential if we are to live by the law…. And, no matter how hard some might try to turn us away from the facts, we also have no right to ignore the rule of law. We have to call to account those who did this and follow the evidence wherever it leads.”

But it is not necessary for the public to view photographic evidence of US personnel engaged in torture in order for the government to identify the participants, find out precisely what was going on in these “enhanced interrogations,” and to bring criminal charges against these individuals and their commanders, if it is warranted. And should there be criminal prosecutions, these photographs will no doubt be introduced as evidence.

Still, I believe that President Obama is once again demonstrating a level of wisdom that transcends politics. In declining to release these images, he is simultaneously declining to reduce them to a level of “sensationalism” perhaps lower than that we see practiced by The Enquirer and similar unsavory publications. Considering that there are reports of sexual abuse involving both men and women within the documentation, the President’s insistence on keeping much of it from the eyes of the public appears even wiser than may have first appeared.

The behavior of interrogators at Guantanamo surely degrades American principles and law.  But our President apparently realizes that releasing images of the physical and psychological violence perpetrated on these prisoners, some of whom were guilty of nothing whatsoever, is also degrading. It further degrades the prisoners, which serves no useful service, it degrades US personnel (many of whom were no doubt repulsed by what they were being commanded to do); and it degrades the human spirit of each of us.

Romero concluded a recent letter to ACLU supporters, with this:

   “But, the real heartbreak — the real betrayal of our values and principles — would come if we denied our moral and legal responsibility to bring to account those who involved our country in torture so horrid that we hesitate to even look it in the eye.”

No one is suggesting that we should “compromise our values and principles,” Perhaps Mr. Romero and others who are so eager to criticize our President might recognize that when torture is so horrid that we hesitate to “look it in the eye,” photographs of it should not be seen –  on moral principle alone.

(Crossposted to


  1. I’m willing to take it on faith that he has good reasons and will wait and see how it all plays out.  It seems exceedingly unlikely that the worst of the hand-wringing will be realized, this is not a guy who makes up half-assed plans as he goes.

    PS – Thanks for the company over sushi and ice cream last night, btw.  Turns out these voices on the Internet are real live people after all!

  2. HappyinVT

    He is bound and determined to get healthcare reform passed this year.  I believe climate change legislation and EFCA will follow right behind.  He will allow absolutely nothing stand in his way of those goals.  He’ll also be in a better position once the economy is back on track.

    This means holding off on DADT (learned that lesson from the Clinton years even if a majority of folks support its repeal), DOMA, etc.  I would venture a guess that the administration has a timeline of what they want to happen when and in what order.  I would even guess he would have preferred Souter wait a few months to retire so as to lessen the distractions.

    I’m willing to be patient because I do believe Obama has got this mapped out.  I’ll be watching his State of the Union next year to see what he’s planning (versus what is already done).  If I don’t like what I hear I’ll be raising all kinds of a ruckus.

  3. creamer

    the need to prioritize. I suspect most people have been in situations where some things had to wait. I can understand the impatience and skepticism in the gay community, but I hope they hang in there.

    Maybe I’ve been infected by 30 years of small government,but it seems like the mans getting a lot done.

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