WASHINGTON - The Bush administration faces a difficult decision about whether to publicly release hundreds of images of Iraqi prisoners being abused and sexually humiliated at the Abu Ghraib prison.
Some veteran Washington analysts suggested that it's in President Bush's interest to reveal the pictures all at once, rather than risk having public attention focused on them indefinitely as the images slowly leak to the news media.
"This administration should be sophisticated enough about the sieve-like quality of information to understand that it's not a question of releasing or not releasing the photos, but how the public gets it and when the public gets it," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"They're still in a position to control that. As gruesome as they're going to be, better from their point of view to have one 24-hour story than the constant dribbing and drabbing of this. They'll be answering this question every day in every way if they don't do it."
Members of Congress who viewed the new photos and videos yesterday seemed divided on whether the administration should release them to the public - a decision fraught with political and legal consequences, and the risk of increased revenge killings.
"The Pentagon has to look at factors such as the ongoing criminal investigations that are under way," McClellan said yesterday. "No one wants to do anything that would compromise these investigations and possibly prevent people who are responsible from being brought to justice."
McClellan echoed the sentiments of Vice President Dick Cheney, who said Tuesday: "We wouldn't want, as a result of the release of pictures, to allow guilty parties off the hook. By the same token, you don't want to see innocent people inappropriately maligned by virtue of the release of photographs."
But some lawyers, political analysts, human rights advocates and lawmakers said the legal considerations were minimal. More likely, they said, such fears may have been invoked by the White House to mask concerns that the release of hundreds of repulsive images could cause political damage to the president, erode support for the war and raise the likelihood of more attacks on U.S. soldiers.
"There's a legitimate military justice concern, although not one that could not be overcome," said Scott L. Silliman, executive director of the Duke Law School's Center on Law, Ethics and National Security and a former Air Force judge advocate. "The more probable reason - and the real danger - is that the release of the photos would further inflame the emotions and passions of those who seek to do us ill."
Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, urged the White House not to publicly release the photos, saying he feared doing so could incite "further anger against our forces or others working in the cause of freedom."
But others argued that the inevitable slow leak of photos could be even more damaging.
"They ought to be released," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican. "Everybody should see them."
When asked why, McCain replied: "They're going to be leaked, No. 1, and No. 2, all Americans should have an opportunity to see them."
Noting that some U.S. soldiers in Iraq might already have e-mailed some of them, Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, said: "I think it's far less harmful to our troops and to our country if they're all released at once, rather than released gradually."
Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch, said making the photos public is a crucial first step toward rectifying the problem. "Failing to reveal them does not convey the openness that I think will be necessary to begin to rebuild the U.S. government's reputation," he said.
A former federal prosecutor, Roth said he doubts that the appearance of the photos in the news media would prejudice any future juror in a court-martial proceeding. He noted that the images would likely be introduced as evidence anyway.
Philip D. Cave, a military lawyer, suggested that the media coverage, congressional attention and statements by Bush and other top government and military officials condemning the abuse have already prejudiced the cases against the suspects.
"The damage is already done," said Cave, a former Navy lawyer now in private practice. The message from Bush and others, he said, is, "Convict people."