The CIA has 52 separate photos and videos of Osama bin Laden's body, the U.S. raid that killed him, and his burial at sea, but refuses to release them. In a Justice Department document filed earlier this week, a top CIA official argues the government is "wholly exempt" from disclosing the images because publication might inspire terror attacks on U.S. targets.
The refusal came in response to a lawsuit by the conservative group Judicial Watch, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request on May 4, three days after the raid on bin Laden's Pakistan compound, asking for the release of the death images. The Department of Justice responded with a declaration from John Bennett, director of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA, arguing that disclosure of the images is a security risk.
Bennett reports that the CIA conducted a search of its records to determine how many images of the raid and its aftermath it possessed. "The CIA located a total of fifty-two (52) unique records that are responsive to Plaintiff's FOIA request. These records are photographs and/or video recordings taken of UBL on or about 1 May 2011, the day that the United States conducted an operation that resulted in his death."
The pictures include "post-mortem images of UBL's body" that Bennett describes as "quite graphic, as they depict the fatal bullet wound to UBL's head and other similarly gruesome images of his corpse." He says that many images were taken inside the Abbottabad, Pakistan compound where bin Laden died, and others were taken when his body was being transported from Pakistan out to sea for burial. "Several other images depict the preparation of his body for burial, as well as the burial itself." According to Bennett, some pictures were taken for facial recognition purposes.
Because of the highly classified nature of these images," writes Bennett, "I cannot further describe their contents or the circumstances in which they were obtained on the public record without potentially causing harm to national security." Bennett says he has determined that all the images should be designated Top Secret, and thus exempt from release, because disclosure "reasonably could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to the national security."
Bennett does not specific how many of the images are photos and how many are videos. Previous media reports had indicated that there might be footage from cameras on the helmets of the Navy SEALs who carried out the May raid, but a New Yorker article published several months asserted that no such helmet-cam footage exists. A U.S. official familiar with the matter confirmed the New Yorker's account.
Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch blasted the Obama administration's refusal to release the images as a "political" decision that "has no basis in law."
"We shouldn't throw out our transparency laws because complying with them might offend terrorists," said Fitton. "The historical record of Osama bin Laden's death should be released to the American people as the law requires."