(CN) - A federal judge may order the U.S. government to release as many as 2,000 photographs depicting the alleged abuse of detainees in custody at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein ruled the Department of Defense failed to show why releasing the photographs would endanger the lives of U.S. citizens and military personnel abroad.
Hellerstein also found that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had not considered each individual photograph - or evaluated their individual potential to endanger American lives - before determining in late 2012 that all of them should remain secret.
"I have reviewed some of these photographs and I know that many of these photographs are relatively innocuous while others need more serious consideration," Hellerstein wrote in a 23-page opinion. "Even if some of the photographs could prompt a backlash that would harm Americans, it may be the case that the innocuous documents could be disclosed without endangering the citizens, armed forces or employees of the United States."
The current debate over releasing the material stems from a 2004 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union concerning photographs, videos and documents related to the treatment and death of prisoners held in U.S. custody abroad following the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks.
It was the disclosure of a handful of photographs depicting abuse at Abu Ghraib in 2004 that inspired a long running debate over whether the United States engaged in torture through enhanced interrogation techniques.
In 2006, Judge Hellerstein ruled that the government had to release photographs documenting prisoner treatment at Abu Ghraib and other sites, although each photograph was to be redacted to mask individual identities.
That decision was upheld on appeal, and President Obama announced the photographs would be made public. Hellerstein wrote.
Before that happened, however, then-Iraqi Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki asked the White House not to release the photos, fearing the images would foment unrest in his country.
Congress responded by passing the Protected National Security Document Act, which allowed the government to withhold documents if the defense secretary certified their disclosed would endanger American lives.
Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates made just that determination in2009, and Hellerstein accepted it in 2011.
In 2012, as Gates' certification was about to expire as per the statute, Defense Secretary Panetta issued a new certification.
But this, Hellerstein viewed Panetta's certification very differently than he had Gates' finding.
"Three years is a long time in war, the news cycle, and the international debate over how to respond to terrorism," he wrote.
"Given the passage of time, I have no basis for concluding either that the disclosure of photographs depicting the abuse or mistreatment of prisoners would affect United States military operations at this time, or that it would not," the judge said.
Hellerstein said he would let the government submit additional evidence justifying its finding before ordering the photographs released.
He scheduled a hearing for Sept. 8 on the issue.
In a statement, ACLU attorney Marcellene Hearn said the organization steadfastly believes all of the images should be made public.
"We have a right to know what resulted from senior officials' decision to authorize and tolerate the abuse and torture of prisoners," she said.
The Defense Department did not immediately comment on the ruling.