WASHINGTON: The Bush Administration pulled a PR about-face last week, releasing a two- and-a-half-inch-thick stack of formerly classified documents in an attempt to knock down speculation that the President approved plans to use torture in military prisons.
The White House on Tuesday handed the media hundreds of pages of internal memos and documents that it said demonstrated Bush's refusal to authorize abusive tactics.
The White House has been under pressure from Congress, the media, and the international community to prove that it did not endorse the use of torture at Abu Ghraib prison or in Guantanamo Bay, despite a 2002 Justice Department memo giving tacit approval for harsh interrogation techniques.
Observers called the move a dramatic departure for an administration often accused of being the most secretive since Richard Nixon's, particularly in matters of national security.
"This is not the way they've been known to do business," said Stephen Hess, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. "This is an administration that is far better known for keeping things close to the vest, particularly if that material is classified. So they obviously feel that this is something that they cannot just let hang out there."
Releasing the documents became imperative, Hess speculated, because responsibility for the behavior at Abu Ghraib continued to creep up the chain of command and had to be stopped before tainting Bush.
"First it was presented as the aberration of a few low-level soldiers," he said. "Then it seemed to be climbing to a three-star general in Baghdad."
After the discovery of the 2002 Justice report, he said, "The administration had to say, 'Whoa, let's try to put this in the proper perspective before it gets to the Oval Office.'"
But Victor Kamber, president of The Kamber Group, credited the shift in strategy to troubling poll numbers released earlier this month.
A Washington Post/ABC poll showed Democratic challenger John Kerry for the first time being rated a better leader than Bush on national security and terrorism.
"I don't think they would have normally done this, except the numbers show Bush is losing the strength he's always had on national defense and terrorism," he said. "John Kerry has pulled equal, and they're trying to regain credibility by showing that the things they've been telling us are accurate."
Democrats in Congress, however, complained that the memos were merely a "small subset" of relevant documents that they will continue to ask be released to the public.