WASHINGTON – Photos of American military personnel burying Osama bin Laden will remain classified, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with the government in finding that the release of postmortem images of the founder and leader of al-Qaida could cause “exceptionally grave harm” to Americans.
The conservative-leaning group Judicial Watch had been pressing the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency to release at least a subset of 59 photos of bin Laden after he was killed in a May 2011 raid on his compound in Pakistan.
In a 14-page opinion, the three-judge panel wrote that it was persuaded by testimony submitted by national security officials who reviewed the photos and said in court papers that they were “‘quite graphic” and “gruesome” pictures displaying the bullet wound that killed bin Laden.
Attorneys for Judicial Watch had argued that other seemingly innocuous images that depict a dignified burial at sea were unlikely to cause any damage to U.S. national security. But the court said these weren’t just any photos, but “an extraordinary set of images” of U.S. military personnel burying the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“It is undisputed that the government is withholding the images not to shield wrongdoing or avoid embarrassment, but rather to prevent the killing of Americans and violence against American interests,” according to the opinion of Judges Merrick Garland, Judith Rogers and Harry Edwards.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies are exempt from disclosing records in the interest of national defense or foreign policy.