If Obama administration officials thought the controversy surrounding the bin Laden death images was put to rest after the Supreme Court refused to consider Judicial Watch’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, they could not be more wrong.
Judicial Watch recently uncovered smoking-gun evidence that the Obama administration’s efforts to keep these photos secret included an order by a top Pentagon official to destroy them, which could be a violation of federal law. As a result of this latest news, JW is calling for an investigation.
Now let’s get to that evidence.
On January 31, 2014, we received documents from the Department of Defense revealing that within hours of JW filing a May 13, 2011, FOIA lawsuit seeking photos of the deceased Osama bin Laden, U.S. Special Operations Commander, Admiral William McRaven ordered his subordinates to “destroy” any photos they may have had “immediately.” (JW had filed a FOIA request for the photos 11 days earlier.)
Specifically, the McRaven email, addressed to “Gentlemen,” instructs:
One particular item that I want to emphasize is photos; particularly UBLs [sic] remains. At this point – all photos should have been turned over to the CIA; if you still have them destroy them immediately or get them to the [redacted].
The timing of this directive is curious to say the least. According to the Pentagon documents, McRaven sent his email on “Friday, May 13, 2011 5:09 PM.” The records obtained by JW do not detail what documents, if any, were destroyed in response to the McRaven directive. Just hours earlier, JW’s FOIA lawsuit seeking the documents was filed in the United States Court for the District of Columbia. Owing to the enormous public interest in JW’s pursuit of the photos, we announced the filing at a press conference that same morning.
(Our original FOIA request, filed May 2 with the Defense Department, sought “all photographs and/or video recordings of Osama Bin Laden taken during and/or after the U.S. military operation in Pakistan on or about May 1, 2011.”)
Now, clearly McRaven’s directive was intended to keep photographic evidence of bin Laden’s death from ever seeing the light of day. And this is wholly consistent with the Obama administration’s secretive approach to bin Laden’s capture, killing, and burial at sea. But was it unlawful? Federal law contains broad prohibitions against the “concealment, removal, or mutilation generally” of government records. Failure to comply with the law can result in a fine and a three-year prison term.
JW obtained McRaven’s “destroy them immediately” email as a result of a June 7, 2013, FOIA request and a subsequent lawsuit against the Defense Department for records relating to reports of the 2011 McRaven purge directive.
McRaven’s order was first mentioned at the end of a 2011 draft report by the Pentagon’s inspector general (IG) examining whether the Obama administration gave special access to Hollywood executives planning the film “Zero Dark Thirty.” According the draft report, “ADM McRaven also directed that the names and photographs associated with the raid not be released. This effort included purging the combatant command’s system of all records related to the operation and providing these records to another Government Agency.” Curiously, the reference to the document purge did not appear in the final IG report.
I have to say, it is rare to obtain such solid evidence of a government official ordering the destruction of government records. This is the epitome of a “smoking gun.”
And it appears the move by McRaven to purge the photos came, at least in part, in response to aggressive efforts by Judicial Watch to obtain images of the deceased bin Laden that President Obama, in a rewrite of federal open records law, had refused to disclose.
In addition to its May 2, 2011 FOIA request with the Pentagon, Judicial Watch filed an identical request on May 3, 2011 with the CIA. When neither the Defense Department nor the CIA complied with the FOIA requests, Judicial Watch, in June 2011, filed FOIA lawsuits against both agencies. In the course of the litigation, the Pentagon claimed that it had “no records responsive to plaintiff’s request.”
Unfortunately the courts have enabled the Obama administration’s secrecy and obfuscation. On April 26, 2012, District Court Judge James Boasberg accepted the Obama DOD and CIA arguments, ruling that the images could remain secret while conceding: “Indeed, it makes sense that the more significant an event is to our nation – and the end of bin Laden’s reign of terror certainly ranks high – the more need the public has for full disclosure.”
On May 21, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the District Court decision while conceding that the documents may not have been properly classified. The Supreme Court of the United States subsequently denied Judicial Watch’s petition for a writ of certiorari seeking a review of the issue.
The McRaven “destroy them immediately” email is a smoking gun, revealing both contempt for the rule of law and the American’s people right to know. The Obama administration has tried to cover this scandal up–and our lawsuit exposed it.
There remains a nagging question about bin Laden’s capture and killing–a question made only more pressing by the Obama administration’s secrecy. What is it about these photos that Obama does not want us to see?
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton is author of the NY Times best-seller “The Corruption Chronicles” and executive producer of the documentary “District of Corruption.”