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Release of Abu Ghraib Photos Would Boost ISIS Propaganda Machine

Liz | Wednesday, September 03, 2014 - 12:10 pm

Here’s more bad news: in addition to scoring military victories, ISIS is winning the propaganda war and is about to get a huge leg up if the ACLU and The New York Times get their way.

As Americans reel from yet another ghastly video of a beheading, The Times is advocating the release of more photos from Abu Ghraib. Photos of how U.S. combatants abused prisoners in Iraq, which will surely inflame anti-American passions in the Middle East and could put our troops and citizens held hostage in increased danger.

It’s hard to imagine anything more helpful to the hateful propaganda so effectively spewed out by ISIS jihadists. 

Related: Republicans—ISIS Next Target Is America

A federal judge, responding to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, indicated recently that he might order the U.S. government to make available as many as 2,000 photographs showing alleged torture and mistreatment of prisoners held by the U.S. military at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at other detention centers. Up until now the publishing of the photos has been blocked by Congress and by Pentagon brass including former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his successor Leon Panetta.

Upon taking office, President Obama agreed that the photos should be made public, but was then persuaded by military officials that they could imperil U.S. servicemen and women still on active duty in the region. Resistance to releasing the photos has also come from Iraq’s former president Al-Maliki, who in 2009 suggested that the material could create further chaos in his country. Given today’s bloody confrontations in Iraq and Syria, making the photos public would give our enemies a huge propaganda win. 

Not that they need our help. ISIS is extremely adept and knowledgeable about the value of public relations. Their multilingual media operation, called Al Hayat, is active in social media, has broadcast numerous grisly films and published three stylish English-language magazines, all celebrating their “progress”. Their films are high-def, carefully edited and on a par with professional TV fare – in other words, they take this seriously.

Related: What ISIS Really Wants (Besides Your Head)

They have even put out annual reports meant to document their accomplishments, complete with statistics on checkpoints erected, killings, and cities captured. They also produce appealing online recruitment videos that attract volunteers with promises of camaraderie and ample junk food and by highlighting “celebrity terrorists.” 

The recruitment efforts have been productive; there are apparently now as many as 3,000 westerners that have signed up with ISIS. These Europeans and Americans pose a special threat in their ability to bring the jihad home. That is why British Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed making it easier to confiscate the passports of those known to associate with radical Islamists – a move we should follow.

The films are also useful in terrorizing the opposition. In addition to the widely-circulated films of the murders of James Foley and (more recently) Steven Sotloff, ISIS has aired a three-minute video featuring the beheading of a Kurd. One intelligence analyst described the impact as “instilling fear in the heart of the American street, to object to Obama’s new policy in Iraq and Syria, as much as instilling terror in the heart of the Kurds who stand as the only effective Iraqi force in combating The Islamic State…”

The publicity blast has worked. From out of nowhere, ISIS has emerged as a threat taken seriously in the Middle East and in the west as well. They have accomplished much through wanton murder and mayhem, but the broadcasting of those deeds has acted as an accelerant.

Related: Obama’s Use of ISIL, Not ISIS, Tells Another Story

We need to counter the savagery of ISIS not only with military tactics, but also through an equally powerful public-relations campaign. Given President Obama’s lack of conviction about American exceptionalism (even Hillary Clinton said in an interview, “We have not been telling our story very well); a pro-U.S. propaganda effort may not be his weapon of choice. But broadcasting the damaging decade-old Abu Ghraib photos would be running in the exact wrong direction. 

This is but one of many reasons that President Obama needs to declare war on ISIS.  He needs to bring the nation – and The New York Times—aboard the idea that this hateful, destructive organization poses a threat to all civilized peoples, and that we are determined to eradicate them.

This is not a neighborhood skirmish; ISIS is a military and terrorist juggernaut that could, according to Germany’s Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, upend “the already fragile regional order in the Middle East.” As he points out in a recent op-ed, ISIS “now controls a transnational territory that is home to more than five million people and contains cities, oil wells, dams and airports.” Germany has agreed to send military aid to the Kurds; England is taking aggressive action against ISIS. It’s time the U.S. stood up, too. 

The Times notes that the photos in question, some of which are snapshots, are “worse than Abu Ghraib.” They are pleased that one judge Hellerstein has rejected the government’s claim of privilege for all the photos, and insisted that the feds prove that each one “would endanger American lives….”

Related: A Big-Time General Says Destroy ISIS Now

The Times reports that in his decision, the judge noted that some years had passed, and that the law preventing the disclosure was enacted during a time of war. Heads up: we are still at war, even though our president cannot bring himself to admit it.

The Times is correct that the prisoner abuse apparently revealed by the Abu Ghraib photos was a “shameful episode in American history.” The U. S. should – and does – hold itself to a high standard in many arenas, including how we treat prisoners. Eleven soldiers were eventually convicted of prisoner abuse and other misdeeds, several served time in prison and most were dishonorably discharged. They paid a heavy price. Meanwhile, former President George W. Bush issued a public apology for the misdeeds, documentaries and TV shows have aired on the subject, and there were two Senate investigations. This is not exactly a government cover-up.

Since justice was done, there is little upside to revisiting this chapter, and there remains considerable downside. We have hundreds of troops on active duty in Iraq and thousands more in Afghanistan. They are already in danger from Islamic extremists who need no further provocation. Publishing more incendiary photos would provide an immediate boost to jihadist recruiting and propaganda. Revealing them today would aid and abet our enemies. Isn’t that called treason?

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