House Leaders Grapple With Bill on Detainee Abuse Photos

Posted June 18, 2009 at 1:48pm

The Senate handed House Democratic leaders a political conundrum Wednesday night when the chamber passed a bill to bar the release of detainee abuse photos.

Though the Senate bill passed unanimously without debate, House leaders have not decided whether to bring up the measure. The bill is supported by President Barack Obama but bringing it up could anger many liberals in the Democratic Caucus as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued in federal court for access to photos of detainee abuse at the hands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One senior House Democratic aide indicated that House leaders continue to mull whether to bring the bill up at all, but they are also considering whether to include language keeping the pictures secret in the Defense Department authorization bill.

If House leaders don’t bring the measure to the floor, Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) may pursue a discharge petition. He would need 218 signatures to force the House to bring up the bill — and unless Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pressures her Members not to sign it, aides predicted he is likely to get more than that many signatures in favor of taking up the measure.

The Senate had included a provision to prohibit the photos from being made public in the supplemental war spending bill, but House leaders said they would not be able to muster the votes to pass the measure if the detainee photo language was included. House and Senate conferees stripped the language last week.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, released a joint statement Thursday urging the House to act quickly before the issue comes to a head in federal court.

“Each one of those photos would be tantamount to a death sentence to those serving our nation in the most dangerous and difficult spots like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere,— said Graham and Lieberman in a joint statement. “The President and overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the House have made it clear that these photos should not be released. Now it is the House’s turn to take swift action so the President can sign this bill and give our troops and their families the assurance they deserve that these photos will never be released. We’re hopeful the House will pass the legislation and have it on the President’s desk by July 8, the date of the next court hearing filing.—

Graham had threatened to hold up all Senate business until the chamber voted on the bill, but he lifted that threat after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) promised to pass it quickly.

Though several photos of detainee abuse were released during the 2004 scandal over prisoner treatment at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, the ACLU has sued to have more photos released. A federal court ruled in April that the pictures should be made public, but the court issued a stay of that decision until the Obama administration has an opportunity to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.