Can a Court Force Release of Osama Photos?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on May 06, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When news broke about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, many Americans asked the question - "where are the Osama photos?"

Conspiracy theorist and others wanted to see proof. Many still do.

As it turns out, some news agencies are asking the same question and are petitioning the government to release the photos using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

President Obama has already made the decision not to release the photos to the general public. The release of the photos could pose a national security threat, raising tensions and increasing the probability of retaliatory violence. The U.S. hopes to avoid the fallout that could occur from Bin Laden followers seeing gruesome or bloody images of their former al-Qaeda leader.

The Associated Press, however, has filed suit against the government utilizing the FOIA. Their goal is to have the information made open to the public.

Experts are weighing in, and seem to say that though slim, there is a chance of a court granting the request. Essentially, the FOIA request hinges on two elements: who has control over the Osama photos, and whether or not the government can successfully raise a national security exemption.

The FOIA allows Americans to request documents from government agencies. However, the White House itself is not a government agency that is required to comply with FOIA requests. If all of the Osama photos are controlled by the White House, then the AP's attempt to get the photos released will not work.

But if one of the many defense agencies that collaborated in the raid, such as the CIA, possesses the Osama photos, they may be subject to a FOIA request. Still, a defense agency could raise a national security exemption to the request, barring the release of the photos.

The tricky question is whether or not a national security exemption will work, since classified national security information is thought to only cover secret or covert operations, according to an executive order issued by the White House.

It might be difficult to argue that the photos were a part of a secret or covert operation by American military forces. Practically the whole world knows of the U.S. involvement, and the Pakistan raid has been widely acknowledged by government officials and by President Obama.

"I don't know of the basis upon which such a photo could properly be classified," Daniel Metcalfe, former chief to the Department of Justice's Office of Information and Privacy, told Gawker.

The FOIA request will take some time to work its way through the system, and in the meantime whether or not the Osama photos will be released seems up in the air.

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