ACLU Requested Information on Prisoner Abuses in October; Pentagon Stonewalled, Saying Information Wasn't "Breaking News"

May 13, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU Requested Information on Prisoner Abuses in October; Pentagon Stonewalled, Saying Information Wasn’t “Breaking News”


WASHINGTON – Documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union reveal that the Pentagon refused to expedite a Freedom of Information Act request, filed seven months ago, for documents related to the abuse and possible torture of U.S.-held detainees. The Defense Department argued that the material was not “breaking news” and that the failure to expedite the request would not “endanger the life or safety of any individual.”

Full compliance with the request, the ACLU said, would have required the Defense Department to release records related to the emerging scandal at Abu Ghraib. It would also have required the release of records describing any measures taken by the Defense Department to prevent torture and abuse.

“It’s obviously in the Pentagon’s self-interest to withhold information that could damage its reputation, but America’s reputation is damaged more by cover ups and a lack of transparency,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “This is just further evidence that ‘trust us’ simply isn’t an acceptable response to public concerns in a constitutional democracy like America.”

The FOIA request was filed in October 2003 by the ACLU and four other organizations: the Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Veterans for Common Sense, and Veterans for Peace. The requesters are currently considering litigation to force compliance with the seven-month-old request.

The FOIA petition was filed in response to a series of news stories by the Washington Post and other publications indicating that the U.S. government may have tortured detainees held abroad or subjected them to “cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment.” In June 2003, after the release of those news accounts, President Bush issued a statement saying that the United States “is committed to the world-wide elimination of torture and we are leading this fight by example.”

The FOIA request was specifically intended to uncover incidents of torture and abuse such as those that we now know to have occurred at Abu Ghraib.

But, the Pentagon twice rejected the ACLU’s call for “expedited processing.” The Defense Department claimed that the subject matter of the request was not “breaking news” and that there was no “compelling need” for the immediate release of information about the mistreatment of detainees. The Defense Department also claimed that expediting the request was unnecessary because failure to expedite would not “endanger the life or safety of any individual.” The ACLU’s complaints about the lack of responsiveness at the Pentagon mirror those of prominent lawmakers.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), for instance, took to the Senate floor earlier this month to criticize Defense Department general counsel William Haynes, who has given only half-answers or no answer at all to many of the Senator’s questions. In one case, Haynes, who is also a controversial judicial nominee to the Fourth Circuit, failed to fully answer whether he would support the use of deadly force against an American citizen on American soil who the White House believes is an enemy combatant.

“The Defense Department’s stonewalling is absolutely unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that mistreatment and abuse of detainees appears to have been systemic,” said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney. “The American public has a right to know what’s being done in its name.”

The request was directed to the Departments of Defense, State and Justice, as well as the CIA. Neither Justice nor the CIA has disclosed responsive records to date. The State Department has released about a dozen pages of talking points prepared for its press officers concerning the detentions at Guantanamo.

Specifically, the ACLU expressed concern – now validated by the Abu Ghraib photographs – that detainees in U.S. custody were being subjected to torture, as defined in the international convention banning the practice to which America is a signatory. The FOIA request also cited reports that detainees were being turned over or “rendered” to foreign countries with poor human rights records, as a way to sidestep the ban in America against torture.

The records requested by the ACLU include:

  • All records related to incidents of torture or “cruel, inhuman or degrading” treatment and deaths of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad (including detainees held at Abu Ghraib).
  • All records related to Red Cross access to detainees, which would have included documents concerning the organization’s complaints to top defense officials in Iraq about Abu Ghraib.
  • All records related to discussions of the legality or appropriateness of torture and abuse of detainees held in U.S. custody abroad.
  • All policy setting documents concerning torture or other mistreatment.
  • All records discussing actual or possible violations of such policies, which would include anything related to the Abu Ghraib investigation.
  • All records relating to the rendering of detainees by the U.S. to countries known to employ torture against those in their custody.

Release of the FOIA documents comes several days after the ACLU submitted a letter to President Bush saying that the Abu Ghraib debacle was a “predictable result” of American detention policies in the war on terrorism that routinely flout the rule of law and American values.

Attorneys in the case include Jaffer and Amrit Singh of the ACLU and Steven Watt of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Information on the ACLU’s FOIA request, including the newly released documents can be found at:

The ACLU’s letter on Abu Ghraib is on-line at:

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