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U.S. Court Backs Withholding bin Laden Images

Group seeking release of photos, videos of the Abbottabad raid says decision is ‘craven’

A U.S. federal court has upheld a decision to withhold photographs and videos taken during the commando raid in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed.

On May 21, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the U.S Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group.

The appeals court upheld an April 26, 2012, ruling by the District Court denying the FOIA request by Judicial Watch seeking “all photographs and/or video recordings of Osama bin Laden taken during and/or after the U.S. military operation in Pakistan on or about May 1, 2011.” Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011 at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

In the case — Judicial Watch v. U.S. Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency (No. 12-5137) — the court ruled the CIA properly withheld the photos and video of bin Laden, and that the photos used to conduct facial recognition analysis of bin Laden could reveal classified intelligence methods.

In addition, the video and images of bin Laden’s burial at sea could trigger violence against American citizens, the court said. The decision also says the government is not withholding the images to shield wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment, but rather to prevent the killing of Americans and violence against U.S. interests.

However, in its argument, Judicial Watch said it was not likely that the images showing the preparation of bin Laden’s body for burial and the burial itself would cause any harm to U.S. national security.

In a statement about the decision, Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch’s president, calls the court’s decision “craven, absurd, and undermines the rule of law,” but the group has not made a decision whether to continue with the appeals process.

The court seems to acknowledge that the images were improperly classified, but gives the Obama administration a pass, Fitton says. “The court’s interpretation would allow terrorists to dictate our laws. Americans’ fundamental right to access government information and, frankly, the First Amendment are implicated in this ruling,” he said.

“The courts need to stop rubberstamping this administration’s improper secrecy,” he says, adding, “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.”

Click here to read the appeals court opinion.