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How to Hide the Torture Photos

June 18, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

You may have noticed a outpouring of opposition in the progressive blogs over the past few weeks to a Sen. Joseph Lieberman [I, CT]-Sen. Lindsey Graham [R, SC] effort to override the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and block public disclosure of detainee torture photographs. The bloggers scored a victory in keeping it out of the war-funding bill, but their battle for transparency is far from over.

On May 20, after President Obama announced that he would appeal the court-ordered release of detainee torture pictures that the ACLU had requested through FOIA, Liberman and Graham took the judicial issue and tried to make it a legislative one. Specifically, they pushed an amendment through the Senate to make an exception to FOIA disclosure specifically for the torture photos. As the text of the amendment stated, any “photograph taken between September 11, 2001 and January 22, 2009 relating to the treatment of individuals engaged, captured, or detained after September 11, 2001, by the Armed Forces of the United States in operations outside of the United States” that the Defense Department determines would endanger American citizens or troops if released would not be eligible for disclosure under the amendment.

Ultimately, after an intense citizen lobbying effort led mainly by Jane Hamsher at Fire Dog Lake and Glenn Greenwald at Salon, the amendment was dropped by a House-Senate conference committee from the Iraq/Afghanistan war supplemental that the Senate had attached it to. Anti-war House Democrats, whose votes were crucial for passing the war-funding bill since Republicans opposed the bill en bloc, wouldn’t help pass it with the photo amendment included.

But in a little noticed move on Wednesday night, the Senate passed the amendment again as a stand-alone bill (S. 1285). Like they did with the original amendment, they passed the bill by unanimous consent, meaning that individual votes were not recorded and that no one in the Senate opposed it strongly enough to object and force a debate. As we’ve seen time and time again in the Senate – for example, with the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act – all it takes is one Senator to oppose the unanimous consent agreement and they can put a “hold” on the bill for weeks or months, or maybe even kill it. As an institution, it doesn’t look good for the Senate that they can’t pass common sense transparency legislation the Senate Campaign Disclosure Parity Act even after several years of trying, but an anti-transparency bill like this one passes unanimously just a few hours after it’s introduced.

CNN reports:

Earlier Wednesday, Graham said at a Judiciary Committee hearing that he had received assurance from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel “that the president will not let these photos see the light of day.”

“The people involved in Abu Ghraib and other detainee abuse allegations have been dealt with,” Graham said, arguing against the release of the photographs. “Every photo would become a bullet or IED used by terrorists against our troops.”

Hundreds of photos allegedly depict explosive images of prisoner abuse — images U.S. military leaders believe would fuel anger in the war regions and endanger U.S. troops.

After receiving the White House promise, Graham agreed to release a “hold” on key legislation, including the $106 billion war funding measure.

The bill will now go to the House. No word yet on when the vote will be or how much opposition to it there will be there.

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