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ARLINGTON, Va. — Pentagon officials said Friday that the Department of Defense, exhausted of legal options short of a Supreme Court challenge, agreed Thursday to obey a federal appeals court ruling and release hundreds of internal photographs used as evidence in more than 60 U.S. Army investigations into allegations of detainee abuse.

"We felt this case had pretty much run its course. Legal options at this point had become pretty limited," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who defended the department’s record of holding detainee abusers accountable.

In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit denied the government’s request to rehear the case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union after ruling in September 2008 that the photos must be released.

The ACLU had sued to obtain government records in more than 60 investigations of the Army Criminal Investigative Command, known as CID, after the Pentagon denied the ACLU’s original 2003 request for the records filed under the Freedom of Information Act.

"A decision was made by the Justice Department, in collaboration with us, that we should comply with the lower court’s ruling," said Whitman.

Late Thursday, the ACLU announced the Pentagon had agreed to release by May 28 a "substantial" number of photos in addition to 44 images already identified for release during the case.

With legal options running out, the DOD agreed to release the entire catalog of photos from those investigations, the number which could reach into the hundreds.

The photos first must be redacted to hide the identities of those involved.

At issue is whether the photographs represent widespread detainee abuse by individuals carrying out U.S. policy, or whether they are examples of limited, individual behaviors that went beyond policy limits and guidelines which the Pentagon diligently investigated and punished.

The ACLU asserted in a statement released Thursday that senior defense officials "created a culture of impunity in which abuse was tolerated" or even directly ordered to lower-level ranks.

It read: "These photographs provide visual proof that prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel was not aberrational but widespread, reaching far beyond the walls of Abu Ghraib.

"Their disclosure is critical for helping the public understand the scope and scale of prisoner abuse as well as for holding senior officials accountable for authorizing or permitting such abuse," the statement continued.

But Whitman said the images should not be misconstrued as proof of abuse, rather they are only part of the evidence used in investigations of such allegations. The decision to withhold them was made in a different context, he said.

"I think it’s very important that our concerns about the images are understood. When we started with the litigation, it was a number of years ago. Iraq was in a much different place than it is today. The potential impact — you could make the argument that the potential impact, given the situation in Iraq today versus the situation in Iraq a few years ago, could very well be different," Whitman said.

Since 2001, Pentagon officials say the department formally has investigated claims of abuse by more than 600 individuals, more than 400 of whom were given punishments ranging from reprimands to prison sentences.

In addition, other servicemembers have received various levels reprimands that did not rise to the level of investigations.

Those figures, Whitman said, reflect the Pentagon’s diligence, not complacency, as the ACLU charged.

"We’ve had combat operations for how many years, now? We’ve deployed how many forces into the field? We’ve had how many people involved in detainee operations? I am not going to sit here and minimize the seriousness in which we’ve handled these cases when they’ve come up. I mean, the standard is none, that every servicemember should be treating detainees in accordance with our policies and our directives. So even one is too many, in my mind," Whitman said.

"Our policy has always been one of humane treatment. We have, obviously, over time, found instances where performance has not matched the policy. And when the performance hasn’t matched the policy, we’ve held people accountable for their actions."

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