Tuesday, December 19, 2006

U.S. withdraws demand for return of secret memo

U.S. withdraws demand for return of secret memo

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The U.S. government withdrew on Monday a demand for the American Civil Liberties Union to hand over a "secret" Washington memo on its policy on photos of enemy prisoners of war and detainees, the rights group said.

The New York-based civil liberties group said the government had asked a federal court judge to withdraw the subpoena demanding "any and all copies" of the memorandum, saying that the document had now been declassified.

"The Bush administration's attempt to suppress information using the grand jury process was truly chilling and is unprecedented in law and in our history as an organization," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a statement.

In its motion to quash the subpoena to the ACLU, the Justice Department said the memo had been wanted for a criminal investigation into the improper dissemination of classified and sensitive documents from a government agency.

"The document is now declassified and there exist alternate sources for the evidence necessary to the grand jury investigation. Accordingly, the government withdraws the subpoena at issue in this matter," the Justice Department said in its filing.

The memo, titled "The Permissibility of Photographing Enemy Prisoners of War and Detainees" and dated December 20, 2005, advised that news media and the U.S. Army Public Affairs Office can take photos as long as it was done in a way that cannot be interpreted as holding the prisoners and detainees up to public curiosity.

It also said U.S. soldiers are banned from photographing prisoners and detainees except when required as part of official duties. The ACLU did not say how it obtained the memo.

"The issue was not the content of the document but the government's unprecedented effort to suppress it," said ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro. "Now that the document has been declassified, it should be plain for all to see that it should never have been classified to begin with, and that the grand jury subpoena was overreaching and inappropriate."

Romero said the documents "raise the question of whether the guidelines were in place prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal and if not, why it took more than a year after the scandal to issue a policy."

In early 2004, photographs showing American troops abusing detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were published around the world. Several U.S. troops have since been convicted in relation to the abuse.