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Obama Refuses to Release bin Laden Death Photos


The Obama administration has responded in court regarding Judicial Watch’s pursuit of the CIA’s bin Laden death photos. Given the administration’s open hostility to government transparency, it probably does not come as a surprise that the CIA is fighting tooth-and-nail to keep these photos secret.

Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Obama Department of Defense (DOD) seeking the following records: “[A]ll photographs and/or video recordings of Osama (Usama) bin Laden taken during and/or after the U.S. Military operation in Pakistan on or about May 1, 2011.” (We filed an identical request with the CIA.) When the government stonewalled, we sued. Now we’re in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia trying to force the release of the photos.

The DOD says it came up empty in response to our request, though I have good reason to believe that the Pentagon didn’t look hard enough. But the CIA admitted it found 52 responsive records (photos and video). Here’s a description of what they found according to the government’s most recent court filing:

These records contain images of Osama bin Laden’s body after he was killed. Many are graphic and gruesome, as they depict the fatal bullet wound to bin Laden’s head. Some of the images were taken inside the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was killed. Other images were taken as bin Laden’s body was transported from the Abbottabad compound to the location where he was buried at sea. Several images depict the preparation of Osama bin Laden’s body for the burial as well as the burial itself.

So they have the photos and videos we’re after for sure. But the agency refuses to release them to the public. Why?

Well, this time they’re hiding behind the vague “implications to national security” they claim could result. “The mere release of these images of Osama bin Laden could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt by the United States to humiliate the late al-Qa’ida leader…,” the government argued in its brief.

But the then-CIA director himself, Leon Panetta, did not seem overly concerned at all about these implications in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams on May 3, 2011, just two days after the raid: “The government obviously has been talking about how best to do this, but I don’t think there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public.” (Panetta is now Secretary of Defense.)

I should point out that Judicial Watch has heard this “national security” argument before. Remember our fight for the footage of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon on 9/11? The DOD had the videos but claimed their release could be detrimental to national security. We won in court, obtained the videos, and none of those vague “implications” ever materialized.

Here’s the bottom line here. President Obama’s decision to keep the bin Laden photos secret is political. It has no basis in law. The government’s legal brief incredibly started off by citing a partial transcript of an interview of President Obama by CBS News 60 Minutes. Obama is quoted as opposing the release of the material because he didn’t want America to be seen as “spiking the football.” Most legal briefs cite the law up front, but the Obama Department of Justice cites an interview with the president. I hope the court will understand that the law and the president’s own personal views aren’t necessarily the same thing in our constitutional republic (however much Obama might be tempted to behave otherwise).

We shouldn’t throw out our transparency laws because complying with them might offend terrorists. There’s no “not wanting to be seen as spiking the football” exemption in FOIA law.

Regarding implications to national security, if anything, selective leaks from the Obama administration concerning operational and intelligence activities connected to the raid have done far more damage to our special operations and intelligence capability than a photograph of a dead body could ever do.

FOIA is a disclosure statute, the public has an affirmative right to know. We’re not after legitimate secrets related to operational or intelligence matters. But the historical record of Osama bin Laden’s death should be released to the American people as the law requires.

I get the feeling that the Obama administration doesn’t want to release these photos because it is embarrassed both by our victory in killing bin Laden and the preposterous burial at sea.

As I’ve pointed out previously, the Obama administration has no problem releasing documents that the left thinks will embarrass the United States – say, for example, Obama’s selective release of documents disparaging “enhanced interrogation techniques” over the objections of his own national security officials. But when it comes to documents that show the heroism of our military? No deal.

We should not cower at the possibility that terrorists won’t like documentation of our military victory. We cannot subject our Constitution and our rule of law to jihadist blackmail and extortion. Judicial Watch will continue to fight for the release of the photos and to complete the public record on one of the most important military operations in United States history.


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