In an abrupt change of mind, President Barack Obama is now seeking to block the release of more than 40 photos showing US personnel abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that their publication could endanger American troops on duty in the two countries.
The Pentagon had been preparing to release the pictures within the next fortnight, in compliance with a federal appeals court ruling in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. They were scheduled to be made public in two batches, of 21 and 23 images, with the likelihood of more to follow.
Yesterday, however, White House officials indicated that the President had had second thoughts, largely at the urging of Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and other senior military commanders including General David Petraeus, the former commander in Iraq, and his successor General Ray Odierno, as well as General David McKiernan, the top general in Afghanistan. General McKiernan was removed from that post earlier this week by Mr Gates, for reasons unconnected to the photos.
The commanders told Mr Obama the release of the photos could inflame opinion against the US and its soldiers across the Arab and Muslim world – much as the infamous pictures from Abu Ghraib prison did when they were first disclosed in the spring of 2004. "Particularly in Afghanistan, this is the last thing they need," a Pentagon official said.
Originally Mr Obama had supported releasing the images, as a follow-up to the four Justice Department memos setting out in detail the "enhanced interrogation techniques" widely criticised as torture, that were permissible for use on suspected terrorists and which were made public last month.
The President would, his aides say, "be the last to excuse the actions depicted" in the photos, taken between 2003 and 2006, some of them at Abu Ghraib. But he now believes their publication would do more harm than good. The next legal steps were not immediately clear, and it is possible the dispute will end up in the Supreme Court.
In its original case, the ACLU said disclosure of the photos was "critical" for helping people understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse, and bringing those who had authorised such abuse to account. The appeals court agreed, saying the public interest of releasing the photos outweighed the risk of endangering the American military or violating detainees' privacy.
Last night the civil rights group criticised the president's decision, as "profoundly inconsistent with the promise of transparency that President Obama has made time after time".