The Supreme Court has not yet indicated whether it will review a Freedom of Information Act ruling requiring the Department of Defense to disclose certain photographs of alleged detainee abuse to the American Civil Liberties Union. If it declines to do so, a federal appeals court order (pdf) that directed release of the photographs will stand.
Though not strictly a legal consideration, there is a potency to photographic images that can make them weapons in the struggle for popular opinion as a foundation and an adjunct to military operations. In opposing their release, the government contends (pdf) that the photographs sought by the ACLU could be used to incite violence against U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.
An old 1979 U.S. Army manual on psychological operations (large pdf) observed that images of brutal behavior committed by enemy terrorists can “reverberate against the practitioner, making him repugnant to his own people, and all others who see the results of his heinous savagery.” Distribution of such images among the population “will give them second thoughts about the decency and honorableness of their cause [and] make them wonder about the righteousness of their ideology.”
“The enemy may try to rationalize and excuse its conduct, but in so doing, it will compound the adverse effect of its actions, because it can never deny the validity of true photographic representations of its acts,” the Army Manual explained (at page I-10, PDF page 252). “Thus, world opinion will sway to the side of the victimized people.”
This kind of propaganda technique could not be used against the U.S., the now obsolete 1979 Army manual stated, because “The United States is absolutely opposed to the use of terror or terrorist tactics.” See “Psychological Operations,” U.S. Army Field Manual 33-1, August 31, 1979.
FM 3-05.30, the current U.S. Army Field Manual on Psychological Operations, does not address the tactical use of photographic images.