Federal court rules CIA’s dead Osama bin Laden photos can remain secret

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the CIA doesn’t have to release pictures of Osama bin Laden following his death, and subsequent burial at sea. Judicial Watch had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the photos, then sued after the CIA refused on the grounds that the images were classified “Top Secret.”

Osama bin Laden
Photo credit www.geekyard.com

On May 1, 2011, President Obama announced that the al-Quaida leader Osama bin Laden had been killed by American troops in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and buried his body at sea.

Shortly thereafter, Judicial Watch filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with the Department of Defense and the CIA to release any photographs or videos depicting bin Laden “during and/or after the U.S. military operation in Pakistan.”

While the Defense Department said it had no such images, the CIA acknowledged it had 52 “records,” but would not release them because they were classified.

Judicial Watch then sued for the release of the records, but the three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with the CIA, in an attempt to avoid the possibility to “trigger violence and attacks against United States interests, personnel, and citizens worldwide.”

According to the ruling:

This is not a case in which the declarants are making predictions about the consequences of releasing just any images. Rather, they are predicting the consequences of releasing an extraordinary set of images, ones that depict American military personnel burying the founder and leader of al-Qaida.

It is undisputed that the government is withholding the images not to shield wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment, see Exec. Order No. 13,526, § 1.7(a), but rather to prevent the killing of Americans and violence against American interests. Indeed, because the CIA’s predictions of the violence that could accompany disclosure of the images provide an adequate basis for classification, we do not rely upon or reach the agency’s alternative argument that the images may be classified on the ground that their disclosure would facilitate anti-American propaganda.


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