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Transparency vital on prisoner abuse

The Spokesman-Review

During the onset of the war, the Pentagon devised the clever public relations strategy of “embedding” the media so the awesome power of the world’s most powerful military machine could be witnessed up close and personal.

But now that “shock and awe” have turned to “shock” and “awful,” the traditional reflex to wall itself off has returned. The quickest and most honorable way out of the public relations disaster caused by the prisoner abuse scandal is to release all information as soon as possible. And, yes, that includes the appalling photos and videos that a parade of politicians viewed on Wednesday.

The Bush administration and some congressional leaders have dug in, stating that releasing the images would compromise prosecutions. From a legal standpoint, that’s debatable, but the United States as a whole is being tried in the court of world opinion, and winning over those jurors is much more important to the campaign in Iraq and the safety of our troops.

Already, debates have broken out over whether abuses constituted “torture,” which is an important consideration. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the abuse didn’t rise to that level, but he won’t release photos and videos to confirm that position. The International Committee of the Red Cross says that international laws on how to treat prisoners of war were violated at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run prisons in Iraq. The report states that 70 percent to 90 percent of those detained at Abu Ghraib were arrested by mistake.

The administration has responded by saying, “trust us.” Let’s face it: Much of the world no longer trusts the United States when it comes to Iraq. No weapons of mass destruction. No firm link to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. No widespread embrace of our troops as we went from liberators to occupiers. And, of course, the abominable treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

The best course for the United States is to show that we mean it when the president says the difference between an open society and those run by thugs is transparency. That means the government should launch an aggressive campaign to release information and photos as we track down those responsible for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

The United States has long prided itself on treating our prisoners better than the enemy has. The Geneva Conventions were established to protect our troops from the type of maltreatment they endured in World War II.

If, as some contend, military intelligence officers took command of prisons and ordered torture to extract information, that would be a serious violation. If the Pentagon isn’t guilty, it sure is acting as though it were as it deflects questions and sits on information.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was a victim of prisoner torture in Vietnam, is calling for the immediate release of all images. He rightly contends that the United States can minimize the damage by showing that we volunteered to be transparent, that we owned up to mistakes. Plus, it’s better to deal with this disaster quickly than to endure the steady drip, drip, drip from the inevitable leaks.

Another Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said it best: “When you are the good guys, you have to act like the good guys.”

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