A federal appeals court Tuesday backed the U.S. government’s decision not to release photos and video taken of Osama bin Laden during and after a raid in which the terrorist leader was killed by U.S. commandos.
The three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington turned down an appeal from Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, which had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the images.
The Defense Department said it didn’t turn up anything pertinent to the request. The CIA had found 52 such records, but withheld all of them, citing exemptions for classified materials and information specifically exempted by other laws.
In Tuesday’s ruling, the appeals court said that the CIA properly withheld publication of the images of the al-Qaida leader. The court concluded that the photos used to conduct facial recognition analysis of bin Laden could reveal classified intelligence methods, and that images of bin Laden’s burial at sea could trigger violence against American citizens.
Judicial Watch had argued it was unlikely that images showing the preparation of bin Laden’s body for burial and the burial itself would cause any harm to U.S. national security. At oral arguments in January, the group’s lawyer suggested that graphic photos of bin Laden’s corpse should be distinguished from somber images of bin Laden’s burial at sea.
“As the district court rightly concluded, however, the CIA’s declarations give reason to believe that releasing images of American military personnel burying the founder and leader of al-Qaida could cause exceptionally grave harm,” wrote the panel, made up of Chief Judge Merrick Garland, and Judges Judith W. Rogers and Harry T. Edwards, all appointees of Democratic presidents. The decision affirms a district court judge’s ruling last year denying the group’s lawsuit over the FOIA.
A CIA official had made a declaration in the case that many of the photos and video recordings are “quite graphic, as they depict the fatal bullet wound to and other similarly gruesome images of his corpse.”
The court said it was undisputed that the government wasn’t withholding the images to shield wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment, but rather to prevent the killing of Americans and violence against U.S. interests.
In a statement, Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said courts needed to stop “rubber-stamping this administration’s improper secrecy. There is no provision of the Freedom of Information Act that allows documents to be kept secret because their release might offend our terrorist enemies.”