WASHINGTON – Federal appeals court judges seemed skeptical Thursday about forcing the government 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.
Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, is seeking the images through the Freedom of Information Act. The CIA found 52 responsive records. The intelligence agency withheld all of them, citing exemptions for classified materials and information specifically exempted by other laws.
Judicial Watch lawyer Michael Bekesha told the appeals court panel in arguments Thursday that the government didn’t provide a specific enough basis for denying the request. But Judge Merrick Garland said the government cited specific concerns that the images could be used by the al-Qaida terrorist network for propaganda and to incite anti-American sentiment.
Why aren’t those specific? asked Garland, an appointee of Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Bekesha said that the government didn’t provide the justification for each of the 52 records and how each one of them would cause harm. He suggested that graphic photos of bin Laden’s corpse should be distinguished from somber images of bin Laden’s burial at sea, for example.
Judith W. Rogers, also a Clinton appointee, said this wasn’t a typical case because bin Laden was the al-Qaida founder.
Bekesha replied that the judges are capable of making those kinds of determinations and that the images sought are not like records of secret conversations or secret U.S. security locations overseas.
Isn’t this worse? Garland asked, because the government says the release could lead to deaths.
The court, Bekesha said, should not just rubber-stamp the government’s findings of what might cause harm.
John Bennett, director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, said 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. Images were taken of bin Laden’s body at the compound where he was killed by a Navy SEAL team and during his burial at sea from the USS Carl Vinson, Bennett said.