The position of President Barack Obama to oppose the release of photographs of past abuse of Iraqi, Afghan and other prisoners in U.S. custody presents serious moral and political problems for Americans.
The employment by the Obama administration of the argument that release of the photos will increase danger to U.S. forces in the field is an especially complicated aspect of the same issue. It is an ugly echo of ploys used by the administration of Mr. Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, to shield politically awkward information by claiming that releasing it would jeopardize national security.
It is a fact that the signature visual images of the Iraq war for Americans were the photographs of grinning American servicemen and -women posing with naked Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Those photographs brought an awareness to Americans of what was being done in their name by U.S. military personnel at the instigation of senior political, military and intelligence figures. Those photos may have had greater impact than any other aspect of the Iraq war in prompting voters to choose Mr. Obama at the polls last November and rejecting another Republican president.
So what now? What would be the impact of more photos of Americans tormenting prisoners? Would U.S. soldiers then be in more danger than they are already? We think not. The Abu Ghraib photos are still out there, as are the reports of U.S. drone aircraft bombing Afghan and Pakistani villages in quest of al-Qaida and Taliban operatives but killing many innocent civilians in the process. Are more photos from the past going to make those who hate Americans even angrier?
It is also the case that the original best argument for not mistreating prisoners is still the same: If the United States does not show decency to the prisoners it takes, why should any captor of American prisoners not mistreat them as well?
A comparable argument is being raised over the question of the Obama position on torture. The administration is opposed to it, in principle, but it is still bobbing and weaving in the face of accusations that as senior a Democratic figure as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knew years ago what was being done to prisoners at the hands of the Defense Department, the CIA and -- perhaps worst of all -- contractors, and did not take action to stop it.
The best position the Obama administration can take on the abuse photos is this. First, all information on the subject should come out so that the American people can know exactly what occurred. Second, the White House must declare that such practices have stopped, entirely. That is the most important message to Americans and to America's enemies, for that matter. Third, President Obama, who does not believe it would be useful to prosecute members of the Bush administration involved in possible torture, must still state that these activities are abhorrent in terms of America's principles and international obligations.
Our country's best interests are not served by wasting time looking backward and digging up bones. There are lessons to be learned by studying the past, but the problems of this day are fully sufficient to keep all Americans busy.