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U.S. agrees to issue Abu Ghraib images

Defense Department withdraws appeal challenging ACLU request

From David de Sola
CNN

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A U.S. soldier checks on detainees at Abu Ghraib in this photo from October.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Defense Department has withdrawn its appeal challenging a district court order requiring it to turn over to civil rights groups 74 photographs and three videotapes depicting images of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, officials said Tuesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the department in October 2003, before the release of the first images from the prison nearly seven months later, looking for documents related to abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad.

That lawsuit has resulted in the release of more than 90,000 pages of government documents on issues of detainee treatment in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The decision to abandon the appeal means that a September 2005 ruling by Judge Alvin Hellerstein in the Southern District of New York ordering the military to turn over the photographs and videotapes will stand.

In that ruling, Hellerstein wrote, "Publication of the photographs is central to the purposes of [the Freedom of Information Act] because they initiate debate, not only about the improper and unlawful conduct of American soldiers, 'rogue' soldiers, as they have been characterized, but also about other important questions as well.

"For example, the command structure whose failures in exercising supervision may make them culpable along with the soldiers who were court-martialed for perpetrating the wrongs."

Images and videos depicting abuse of detainees by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib were originally provided to Army investigators by Sgt. Joseph Darby, a military policeman, who blew the whistle on the abuses.

Some of the images were later obtained and published by various news organizations, creating outrage in the United States and around the world.

Asked to comment on the department's decision to give up the appeal, ACLU attorney Amrit Singh told CNN, "The government never had a basis for withholding the photographs under the law in the first place. So the withdrawal of the appeal only confirms that the public is entitled to these documents under the Freedom of Information Act."

Although the department had been challenging the court ruling for nearly six months, the ACLU believes that the decision to challenge the ruling may have led to previously unreleased photos and videos of abuse at Abu Ghraib being leaked to and published by the Australian Broadcasting System and Salon.com in February.

The ACLU said in a statement that most of the 74 images are believed to have already been published on Salon.com.

Singh said the government has agreed to comply with the court's order to turn over the images. The government will authenticate photos from Salon.com in its possession, and any of the 74 photos it has that are not on Salon.com will be turned over.

Singh added, "I think that this is a victory for the public's right to know the full truth about the abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad."

A Defense Department official, Lt. Col. John Skinner, told CNN, "We will identify the images recently published on a media Web site that were at issue in this appeal. If any images at issue are not posted on the Web site, we will release those images, with portions redacted."

ACLU spokesperson Erica Pelletreau said she hopes that will be "sooner rather than later."

In the aftermath of the initial revelations of detainee abuse, a Pentagon official said, "There have been more than 12 major reports and over 600 criminal investigations.

"There have been thousands of interviews, dozens of congressional hearings. Clearly, this is an issue that has been put under a microscope and looked at from every possible angle," the official said.

The Defense Department's decision "only applies to the 74 photos and three videos that were part of the litigation," another official said. "We reserve the right to repeat arguments and to appeal future orders to release other images."

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a written statement Tuesday that the group "will press on with its lawsuit to hold high-level officials accountable for creating policies that resulted in the abuse of detainees."

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