Sen. Tom Harkin Calls for Release of Torture Photos


Speaking to Iowa Public Radio (IPR) audiences on Thursday, May 14, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) called for President Obama to release to the public photos depicting the treatment of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This is one time I think I’ll have to disagree with the president. I think the photos should be released,” said Harkin in response to a question put to him by Ben Kieffer, host of IPR’s popular daily public affairs program, The Exchange.

Kieffer had asked Harkin, “Yesterday President Obama declared that he would try to block the court ordered release of photos that show U.S. troops abusing prisoners. He said this abrupt reversal of his position came out of concern that the pictures would further inflame anti-American opinion and endanger U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is your view of the president’s reversal?”

“I think the public has a right to know what was done by government officials. That’s the very basis of our democracy. That’s especially true when it concerns official government policy that was in direct conflict with our most basic values and where laws were broken,” said Harkin. The experienced and influential lawmaker and former Navy pilot served 10 years in the House of Representatives before his election to the Senate in 1984.

“This is one where a lot of the blame has been put on lower ranking military people … I think we need to know, more and more, who authorized this at the highest levels. So, I think these pictures should be put out. We have to tell the world again that one of the good things about America is our transparency, and we will look at things and we will investigate things to find out who did these deeds. So, I disagree with the president on this one,” said Harkin.

Harkin serves on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee on the Defense Subcommittee and on the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee.

Harkin’s call for President Obama to allow the Department of Justice to release at least 44 additional prisoner abuse photos, as ordered by Judge Alvin Hellerstein of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2005, came on the same day that the Appropriations Committee released the “Highlights of FY 2009 Supplemental”. The bill totals $91.3 billion. It includes “$73 billion in new non-emergency, discretionary spending authority for the Department of Defense under the Defense Subcommittee’s jurisdiction.” The Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee title of the supplemental totals “$6.878 billion to address urgent diplomatic, humanitarian, development and security requirements in countries and regions where U.S. security interests are facing major challenges.”

“Do you worry that [Obama] is buckling on this under pressure on this from people like Dick Cheney?” asked Kieffer.

“I can’t imagine that Dick Cheney could make him buckle … I just think that he’s probably getting a lot of input from the military and all the others. I don’t know whether [CIA Director] Leon Panetta’s been involved in this or not, I just don’t know, but whatever advice he’s gotten has been wrong, and I dare say the pictures are going to come out. … You can’t keep these under wraps forever. One way or the other, they’re gonna get out. I think the president ought to be forthright and say, ‘You know, what we did was wrong, and those who authorized this ought to be held accountable,'” said Harkin.

Kieffer reminded his listeners of Harkin’s military service and his involvement in an abuse and torture controversy during the Vietnam era, pressing the senator again on the issue of potential risks associated with the release of the photos.

“Senator, you were in the military as a Navy pilot. You flew battle damaged planes from Vietnam and the Philippines to Japan for repair. Later, as an aide on a Congressional visit to a South Vietnamese island, prison island of Con Son in 1970, you photographed so-called ‘tiger cages’ in which political prisoners were being kept, and these pictures you took, some made it to Life magazine. So you certainly know the power of images. Don’t you worry that this will further inflame anti-American opinion around the world as the president argues, that this will endanger our troops when we are, perhaps, on the road to gaining greater goodwill?” asked Kieffer.

Harkin turned the tough question to his advantage, using it as an opportunity to tell his constituents that his position on the controversial issue is one informed by personal experience, thoughtful reflection, and deep conviction.

“Well, interesting you mention that whole ‘tiger cage’ episode. As you know, I was working in the House at the time as a staff member. I was also told not to release those pictures. I was told it was going to damage our troops in Vietnam, it was going to harm our people, our prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Basically, I was really excoriated and told that I shouldn’t release them, but I felt that I had a higher obligation. I had an obligation to those people who were in those prison camps, who were there unjustly, being tortured, put to death. And I felt the United States should not be involved, and I knew, at that point in time, I knew that this was being condoned and actually over–”there was oversight by some of our government agencies. And by putting those pictures out, I think that it–”all these people released from these prison cells, some of them went on to lead very distinguished lives in Vietnam and here in America. It put an end, at least at that time, to some of the really, I think, illegal things that we were doing in those ‘tiger cages’. So, I’m very sensitive to this. If there are pictures out there, they ought to be made public. These things have to be made public. I feel very strongly about that,” said Harkin.

Harkin’s official web site notes that he “went to Washington in 1969 to join the staff of Iowa Congressman Neal Smith. As a staff member accompanying a congressional delegation to South Vietnam, he independently investigated and photographed the infamous ‘tiger cage’ cells at a secret prison on Con Son Island, where prisoners–”many of them students–”were being tortured and kept in inhumane conditions. Despite pressure to suppress his findings, Tom’s photos and eyewitness account were published in Life magazine. As a result, hundreds of abused prisoners were released.

“In 1972, Tom and [his wife] Ruth graduated in the same class at Catholic University of America Law School in Washington, D.C. They returned to Iowa, and settled in Ames. Tom worked with Polk County Legal Aid, assisting low-income Iowans who could not afford legal help. Ruth won election as Story County Attorney, becoming the first female elected to this position.”

Kieffer asked again about the political implications of former Vice-President Cheney’s high-profile role in the torture controversy.

“How do you view the ‘front and center’ role of former Vice-President Dick Cheney as the foremost defender of the Bush administration within recent days?” asked Kieffer.

“I just don’t think Dick Cheney has any credibility at all left. Here’s someone who consistently lied, and I use that word in all of its meaning, lied to the American people about Iraq, about Saddam Hussein, about weapons of mass destruction. He is the only vice-president in history who went down to the CIA and inserted himself in CIA operations as the vice-president. So, Cheney, to me, is someone who had a world view, he had a belief in what the world was like, and what our enemies were like, and the real world did not comport with his belief system. Now he wants to continue to say that his belief system trumps everything, whereas the facts and reality are completely different,” said Harkin.

“From a purely partisan perspective as a Democrat you must be happy to see someone like Cheney with such low approval ratings be the public face of the opposition,” said Kieffer.

“Well, when Dick Cheney gets up and denigrates Colin Powell and holds up as the epitome of what a Republican is Rush Limbaugh, I can understand why more and more moderate Republicans are becoming Democrats,” replied Harkin.

Powell, Secretary of State during former President George W. Bush’s first term, endorsed Obama during the final weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign. Powell’s former Chief-of-Staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, testified on June 18, 2008 before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil Rights hearing on torture that well over 100 detainees had died in U.S. custody and that 27 of those deaths had officially been declared to be homicides.

Cheney’s office is widely reported to have been at the center of the Bush administration’s “enhanced” or “harsh interrogation technique” policy. On December 15, 2008, Cheney told ABC News that, “I was aware of the program, certainly, and involved in helping get the process cleared, as the [CIA] in effect came in and wanted to know what they could and couldn’t do. And they talked to me, as well as others, to explain what they wanted to do. And I supported it.”

After WWII, the U.S. government tried and convicted Japanese military officers of war crimes for waterboarding prisoners.

On May 10, Cheney told CBS’s Face the Nation that President Obama’s decision to dismantle the Bush administration’s interrogation programs had made the USA more susceptible to terrorist attacks.

In an article published on May 14, Wilkerson, a Republican, wrote, “…what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002–”well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion–”its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qa’ida. So furious was this effort that on one particular detainee, even when the interrogation team had reported to Cheney’s office that their detainee ‘was compliant’ (meaning the team recommended no more torture), the VP’s office ordered them to continue the enhanced methods. The detainee had not revealed any al-Qa’ida-Baghdad contacts yet. This ceased only after Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, under waterboarding in Egypt, ‘revealed’ such contacts. Of course later we learned that al-Libi revealed these contacts only to get the torture to stop. There in fact were no such contacts.”

Funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, known as the “Global War on Terror” during the Bush administration but re-branded in late March as “Overseas Contingency Operations” by the Obama administration, is dependent upon Appropriations Committee approval.