The Next Detainee Photo Scandal: Get Ready for Abu Ghraib, Act II

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Brennan Linsley / AP

Military guards move a detainee at the detention center at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

Are you ready for Abu Ghraib, Act II?

Five years ago, people around the world were sickened by photographs that surfaced showing U.S. troops abusing Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Act I resulted in an avalanche of congressional hearings, 15 Pentagon probes and courts-martial. More than 400 U.S. troops — but no senior officials — went to jail or were otherwise punished. Congress passed the Detainee Treatment Act to try to prevent future atrocities.

But now a new batch of photographs, perhaps hundreds of images, of prisoners being abused is about to be made public. It comes at a time when the debate over prisoner mistreatment is still roiling America's political and public conscience. The new photographs are being made public in a victory for the American Civil Liberties Union. And the Pentagon, after fighting, and losing, three federal court reviews of the matter, has waved the white flag and is now preparing to release the pictures. Some of the photographs are official; some, like the original Abu Ghraib collection, taken informally by soldiers. "We know this could make things tougher for our troops," a senior Pentagon official says, "but the court decisions really don't leave us with any other option." (See pictures of the aftershocks from the Abu Ghraib scandal.)

Two senior Senators on the Armed Services Committee beg to differ. Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have written to President Obama, urging him to fight the release. "We know that many terrorists captured in Iraq have told American interrogators that one of the reasons they decided to join the violent jihadist war against America was what they saw on al-Qaeda videos of abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib," the pair wrote Obama May 6. "The release of these old photographs of past behavior that has now been clearly prohibited can serve no public good, but will empower al-Qaeda propaganda operations, hurt our country's image, and endanger our men and women in uniform." They have urged him to reverse the Pentagon's decision, which was made with the backing of the Justice Department, and, if necessary, appeal the case to the Supreme Court. (Read about the Army Field Manual.)

The ACLU maintains that only by releasing the photographs — collected during the Pentagon's various investigations and involving a half-dozen sites — can Americans determine for themselves how widespread, and sanctioned, such abuse was. "These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib," said Amrit Singh, an ACLU lawyer.

So the debate boils down to what's worse: the outrageous behavior by some American troops, or the prospect of angering Muslims that could endanger U.S. troops in southwest Asia. The question is especially pointed just as U.S. troop reinforcements, ordered up by President Obama, are now beginning to arrive in Afghanistan to battle Islamic Taliban forces. At the same time, his Administration is trying to keep neighboring Pakistan, and its nuclear weapons, from falling under the control of Muslim militants.

If Obama accedes to the Senators' request, he'll be accused of covering up war crimes by the Bush Administration. If he allows the photographs to be released, he'll be "needlessly endangering the lives of our brave troops," as David Rehbein, national commander of the American Legion, put it in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Pentagon officials expect Obama will allow the pictures' release. According to the deal struck between the Pentagon and the ACLU, that should happen by May 28, just in time for Memorial Day.

See TIME's pictures of the week.

See pictures of the battle against the Taliban.