Will We Ever See the Osama bin Laden Corpse Photos?

A conservative watchdog group says the U.S. government has provided no reason to block the photos' release. Whether the perceived threat to national security can convince the courts remains to be seen.

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The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch presented oral arguments today for a lawsuit against the federal government over the release of confidential photos taken of Osama bin Laden's corpse after his killing in May 2011. U.S. officials say that the photos, which document the aftermath of the raid that led to bin Laden's death, would incite America's enemies to harm U.S. citizens. But Judicial Watch says the government has provided no evidence of this. Per the group's brief filed on Monday:

Defendants have failed to provide any evidence that all 52 images, including those depicting bin Laden’s burial at sea, pertain to “foreign activities of the United States.” Defendants also have failed to provide any evidence that images depicting the burial at sea actually pertain to “intelligence activities.” Nor have they demonstrated that the release of images of a somber, dignified burial at sea reasonably could be expected to cause identifiable or describable exceptionally grave damage to national security.

When he spoke of the photos shortly after the 2011 raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, President Obama didn't exactly delve into the specifics for not releasing them:

“It’s important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool,” [Obama] said. “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” 

The chance of these photos being released is still difficult to gauge: Last April, a district court judge, siding with the government, struck down a request to make them public. But the judge's justification for doing so leaned on the CIA's testimony that the photos, if made public, would threaten national security — not, say, court precedent or legal principle. The potential of an image to compromise the country's safety isn't a permanent thing — it can lessen or intensify — so it's possible (if a stretch) that, at some point in the future, we will finally witness Osama bin Laden's death.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.