CIA Claims Publication of Bin Laden Death Photos Would ‘Trigger Violence’

The Central Intelligence Agency says releasing images of a dead Osama bin Laden “could trigger violence, attacks, or acts of revenge against the United States.”

Disclosing such images, including one showing the bullet wound to bin Laden’s head, the government said, “plausibly and logically pose a particularly grave threat of inflaming anti-American sentiment and resulting in retaliatory harm.” (.pdf)

The agency made that argument Wednesday in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch, which claims the CIA should release the photos taken by U.S. forces. The American public, Judicial Watch said, has a “right to these historical artifacts.”

Judicial Watch also said the government’s position is “speculative.” (.pdf) The government, however, countered that it does not have to prove “that release of the images will lead to attacks or otherwise harm national security, just that they ‘reasonably could be expected to.’”

The pictures include those of a bullet wound to bin Laden’s skull, of his corpse and images of his burial at sea.

President Barack Obama announced in May that a “targeted operation” killed bin Laden in Pakistan. The United States says bin Laden was the mastermind behind 9/11.

The government has made similar national-security arguments in a FOIA case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sought photos allegedly depicting CIA acts of torture on overseas detainees. In response to a judge ordering disclosure, Congress adopted legislation in 2009 prohibiting the release of the images and other torture-related documents.

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Project on Government Secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists, said publishing such pictures is “bad taste.”

“But the FOIA is not about regulating public taste. It’s about regulating access to information,” he said in a telephone interview.

Aftergood said he was not fully buying the government’s national security claim in the bin Laden case.

“We’re already at war with the Taliban and al-Qaida,” he said. “Are they going to fight us harder?”

The Federation of American Scientists is not a party to the bin Laden photo flap.