Recent news includes comments from members of Congress who viewed not-before-seen photos and videos of Iraqi prisoner abuse “in a top-secret room in the Capitol.” The images were apparently more than troubling.
“I expected that these pictures would be very hard on the stomach lining,” said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon in a typical comment, “and it was significantly worse than anything I had anticipated. Take the worse cases and multiply them several times over.”
It is time to take these pictures — all of them with only a few possible exceptions — and make them public immediately. That’s the first step toward taking corrective action and putting the scandal behind us, to whatever extent that is possible.
In truth, we suspect that few American editors will opt to publish many. Yes, some tabloids and Web sites will feast on them, but in the main, community standards of decency will prevail. The decision of what and how much Americans should see, however, should not be in the hands of the government.
Even though the photos and videos are sure to be inflammatory, even though they might bring recrimination, the greater hazard is to not know, to not fully understand the scope of the transgressions, to let the government decide how much the public can “take” or attempt to control perceptions about the events that occurred.
There are practical reasons, too. Whenever an organization faces a major (or even minor) scandal, the virtually unanimous advice from top public relations experts is to act swiftly to discover the extent of the problem, and then make everything public as quickly as possible. Don’t hold back. If anything, make a fetish of openness.
Although such a course may lead to pain and embarrassment in the short run, it reinforces the idea that the institution takes the charges seriously, is not hiding anything and is taking action to fix things. When done adeptly, it can make for a scandal of short duration rather than a lengthy water torture in which information leaks out by dribs and drabs over the course of weeks or months, with each new revelation leading to new outrage and a lengthy recapitulation of previous revelations.
Few organizations actually follow this advice. Not only does it require proud and powerful people to admit to wrongdoing or incompetent supervision, it goes against the grain in many companies, which regard inside information as rightfully private.
It is unlikely the Bush administration, which by instinct and directive may be the most secretive in recent history, will follow it either.
But it should.
If the Bush administration moves quickly to disclose virtually everything it has about prisoner abuse — there may be a few legitimate concerns about privacy or prejudicing future prosecutions, but in all likelihood they are rare — it could get this scandal behind it relatively quickly and be ready to move forward with transition plans in Iraq.
Let’s see if it has the vision to jettison its usual practices and invite some cleansing sunshine into Iraqi prisons.