BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Pentagon to release dozens of photos and videos depicting more prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The American Civil Liberties Union had sued the Defense Department over the pictures, reportedly more graphic than those that set off a firestorm over the behavior of U.S. military and civilian jailers in 2003. The Defense Department is considering an appeal based on the increased threat to American forces it believes will follow public viewing of inflammatory images. At the same time the legal battle was playing out, the U.S. Senate was considering a measure that would codify rules governing the treatment of POWs and detainees. On Wednesday the amendment, sponsored by Republican Senator John McCain, passed by a vote of 90 to 9. McCain joins us now to discuss the sometimes conflicting values of military necessity, humane conduct and the public's right to draw the line. Senator, welcome to the show.
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Your amendment passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Senate but faces opposition in the House and a possible presidential veto. What is the bone of contention?
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: The objection, as I understand it, that came from a meeting I had with the Vice-President, is that it is viewed as an unwarranted intrusion into Executive Branch responsibilities. My response and our response to that is that the Constitution of the United States states very clearly that a special responsibility of Congress is "captures on land and sea." So there's a significant difference of opinion here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, that first set of Abu Ghraib photos was the smoking gun, but there's a much larger group of images waiting in the wings. Having witnessed the impact of the first pictures, do you think that the opponents of your measure in the White House and in the House of Representatives would have any support at all if this second round had already been made public?
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: I don't know. I know that America's image has been badly damaged throughout the world because of these pictures. And we have to make sure that we do whatever we can to assure people throughout the world, as well as in the United States, that we will not tolerate torture or inhumane treatment because we're signatories to several treaties, but also that's not America's way. It's not about them. It's about us.
BOB GARFIELD: The Pentagon and the American Legion maintain that the dissemination of the second set of Abu Ghraib pictures will so inflame anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, and especially hatred of the military, that our soldiers and Marines would be put at grave risk of attack and torture. Now it's hard to imagine that they're wrong about that, but is that a reasonable argument for suppressing the evidence?
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: I - I understand the argument and I think there's certain legitimacy to it. But rather than arguing about the pictures, we ought to understand why the pictures [CHUCKLES] have come about. And the pictures have come about because we have had people who have committed these gross abuses of human rights, and the pictures are of what happened. So we've got to get to the heart of the problem, and that is the conduct of people who engage in interrogations and make sure that never again is there a picture taken because there's nothing to take a picture of.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, of course, getting to the heart of the problem often has a lot to do with the public's awareness of what's going on. So I want to discuss the public's right to know in this case.
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: Judge Alvin Hellerstein, the Federal Court judge who ordered the release of the photos, ruled that the First Amendment is more important than any negative consequences of releasing the pictures. In fact, he said that government warnings about the danger to our personnel amounts to blackmail. Do you agree with him?
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: Oh look, I know this, that the pictures are damaging when they are released and they run on Al Jazeera 24 hours a day; no one can deny that. The question is, what is the American people's right to know? I'll let the courts decide. If it were up to me, I would probably release the photos. I understand the argument against it, just as I heard the argument against releasing pictures of the My Lai massacre. This is not the first time we have unfortunately been involved in a situation such as this.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Senator, thank you very much.
SENATOR JOHN McCAIN: Thank you, Bob. See you.
BOB GARFIELD: U.S. Senator John McCain joined us Thursday from his office on Capitol Hill.