By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
May 13, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stands behind President Barack Obama's decision today to fight releasing hundreds of photos of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, a senior Pentagon spokesman said. A few dozen of the photos, allegedly depicting prisoner mistreatment, were scheduled to be released by the end of this month, and Pentagon officials were considering releasing other related photos.
But intense pressure by military commanders concerned over a possible backlash against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan caused the president to reconsider, White House officials said. And Gates agrees that their release could put troops in harm's way, Pentagon officials said today.
"The defense secretary has always been concerned about releasing these photos, because of the impact it could have in the region and the potential for making it more difficult for our troops to accomplish their mission and increase the danger to them as they are conducting their operations," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said. "The threat to our fielded forces has not been fully developed and presented in front of the court."
Obama has tasked his lawyers to take another look at the arguments already made in court that releasing the photos could be a threat to troops on the ground.
"The secretary supports the decision of the president to pursue this strategy," Whitman said. "The secretary has been consistent in his concern about the potential impact of the photos."
With 200,000 troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the approach of the May 28 deadline caused more frequent and intense pressure from commanders. Most vocal was Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, officials said.
"Certainly, the anxiety levels went up across the government. They went up here, they went up with our commanders," Whitman said. "There's no doubt that people became even more concerned as we approached the date on which we agreed to release these photographs."
But officials said the timing of the release of the photos with respect to operations in Afghanistan is "particularly threatening." More than 20,000 troops are slated to hit the ground there, the fighting season is in full swing, and elections are slated for August.
Officials said the photos had potential to incite violence, as well as become recruiting tools for terrorists.