Federal appeals court considers release of postmortem Osama bin Laden photos

January 9, 2013

The dramatic raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound plays out on the big screen this month in the movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” but the government’s actual photos of the deceased al-Qaeda leader and his burial remain classified.

A federal appeals court on Thursday will consider whether the public has a right to view postmortem images of bin Laden. The lawsuit, filed by a conservative-leaning watchdog group, seeks the release of 52 photos that followed the operation in May 2011.

The government argues, and a lower court judge agreed, that the photos must be kept secret in the interest of national security. Some defense and intelligence officials express concern in court documents that the release of the images would incite violence against Americans.

In seeking to reverse the lower court ruling, the group Judicial Watch argues that the exemption the government cites to the Freedom of Information Act is too vague. The group asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to ensure that the exceptions “do not become sweeping exemptions.”

President Obama announced the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound last May and released a description of his burial in the North Arabian Sea. Obama said at the time that photos were taken and that “facial analysis” was used to confirm bin Laden’s identity.

Obama explained in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” the administration’s rationale for not releasing the photos.

“It’s important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” he said. “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”

Courts have generally been loath to second-guess the executive branch when it comes to classified information that has the potential to affect national security, according to lawyers who handle cases involving the disclosure of government documents.

In April, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg ruled that the images would remain secret. He wrote that he found the explanations from national security officials of the possible risk of “grave harm to our future national security is more than mere speculation. While al Qaeda may not need a reason to attack us, that does not mean no risk inheres in giving it further cause to do so.”

Boasberg acknowledged that many members of the public might want to see photos related to such a significant event. But, he said, “it is not this Court’s decision to make. . . . The CIA’s explanation of the threat to our national security passes muster.”

Ann covers legal affairs in the District and Maryland for the Washington Post. Ann previously covered state government and politics in California, New Hampshire and Maryland. She joined the Post in 2005.
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