The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia yesterday decided to uphold a district court ruling that the US did not have to release photos of taken during and after the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The photos were sought by a conservative watchdog group, Judicial Watch, under a Freedom of Information Act request. The court found, however, that since the photos were used to conduct facial recognition to verify the body as Bin Laden, releasing the photos could endanger intelligence methods.
While I do not dispute that ruling, I am happy about the outcome on another ground altogether. John Bennett, director of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service, described the photos in a declaration to the court as “quite graphic, as they depict the fatal bullet wound to and other similarly gruesome images of his corpse.” And according to the Appeals Court,
“As the district court rightly concluded, however, the CIA’s declarations give reason to believe that releasing images of American military personnel burying the founder and leader of al-Qaida could cause exceptionally grave harm.”
To my mind, this decision validates an important reason for the Freedom of Information Act: informational transparency. Congress did not pass it to give the media free access to salacious material to boost their ratings.
As citizens of an open democracy, Americans have a right to information about their government and its activities. But where the government has a legitimate reason for withholding a document, even if it is on grounds such as diplomatic “embarrassment,” as happened in the Bradley Manning Wikileaks case, a FOIA request should as a matter of policy only be granted if there is a legitimate informational purpose. Judicial Watch could identify no cognizable information contained in the pictures that was not already publicly known. Thus, releasing the photos would not serve FOIA’s purpose of informational transparency, only the media’s purpose of generating buzz.
A vastly undervalued aspect of protecting our rights as citizens of an open society is to avoid abusing those rights. One example of the dangers that fear of unwarranted disclosure can cause can be found in the case of the CIA interrogation tapes. Fearing that these tapes may at some point become public, the CIA destroyed them. The courts yesterday thus did us a favor in protecting the government from unnecessary disclosure of gruesome photos, helping to ensuring that the government can do its job without fear that anything and everything will wind up on Fox, MSNBC, and Al Jazeera.
Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research