Judge Order U.S. to Release Files on Abu Ghraib
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Judge Order U.S. to Release Files on Abu Ghraib

By JULIA PRESTON
NYT/September 16, 2004

A federal judge in New York, complaining that the Bush administration "shows an indifference" to the freedom of information laws, has ordered the Pentagon and other agencies to produce a list of all their documents on the detentions at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by Oct. 15.

The ruling, issued yesterday by Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein in Federal District Court in Manhattan, came in a suit filed July 2 by the American Civil Liberties Union. The group sued after the federal government failed to provide any relevant documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request it made on Oct. 7, 2003.

The request was for documents about the treatment and deaths of detainees while in United States custody in Iraq, among other subjects. The group provided a list of 70 priority documents, all of which were mentioned in public reports or press accounts.

In his ruling, Judge Hellerstein wrote that the "glacial pace" of the government's response "fails to afford the accountability of government" that the freedom of information laws require. On Aug. 17 the judge had ordered the government to start producing the 70 documents, but none have been released.

"If the documents are more of an embarrassment than a secret, the public should know of our government's treatment of individuals captured and held abroad," he wrote.

He stopped short of ordering the Pentagon to turn over the actual documents by the October deadline, after Assistant United States Attorney Sean Lane argued at a hearing on Friday that there were too many of them - at least 20,000, he said - to produce that soon. Mr. Lane said that many of the Pentagon's documents could not be released for national security reasons, and that the agency was working to identify those it would seek to withhold.

The Pentagon offered to produce a list of its relevant documents by February. In imposing the Oct. 15 deadline, Judge Hellerstein said the federal agencies could make a separate, sealed list for classified documents they did not want to release. But he required the government to give an explanation for each document it would not release.

Jameel Jaffer, a staff lawyer for the group, said that the ruling was "a huge step forward" and would allow the group to begin court challenges to force the release of the documents.

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