The U.S. Justice Department has asked a federal judge to keep secret photos showing the death of Osama bin Laden, saying the images are classified because of their potential to incite violence against the United States.
The department filed court papers (PDF) Wednesday in a public records suit in Washington asking U.S. District Judge James Boasberg to keep the photos out of the public domain.
DOJ attorney Marcia Berman of the Civil Division’s federal programs branch said the photos “reveal specific intelligence activities and methods and specific military methods, tools, equipment, and techniques employed during or after the operation” that killed bin Laden in May.
“For over two decades, bin Laden was the leader and symbol of al-Qaida, a terrorist organization at war with the United States,” Berman said. “The mere release of the images could be interpreted as a deliberate attempt by the United States to humiliate bin Laden, which could trigger violence, attacks, or acts of revenge against the United States.”
Judicial Watch, the conservative nonprofit organization that advocates for transparency in government, sued the U.S. Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency in May in Washington federal district court.
Judicial Watch attorneys James Peterson and Michael Bekesha complained that the agencies did not conduct an adequate search and that the CIA violated classification procedures. The Justice Department said the intelligence agency has complied with its obligations.
Bekesha said in court papers (PDF) that Judicial Watch isn’t seeking any government records “that have been properly classified or would actually cause harm to the national security by revealing intelligence methods or the identity of U.S. personnel or classified technology.”
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the plaintiff’s lawyers said, “the American people have a right to these historical artifacts to capture this moment. To date, the government has failed to provide a legally sufficient justification for why such records must not be released.”
Judicial Watch said the Justice Department hasn’t demonstrated that publishing the records “would cause anything more than speculative harm to the national security.”
The photos depict, among other things, the fatal bullet wound to bin Laden’s head, graphic images of his corpse, the preparation of his body for burial and the burial at sea itself, according to the Justice Department.
The images, DOJ said, also reveal “unique information”—including equipment—about the special operations unit that conducted the raid at the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
Release of the images “reasonably can be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to national security,” Berman said in the court filing.
“It is the Executive Branch, not Judicial Watch, that is responsible for the nation’s security and the security of American personnel overseas,” Berman wrote.
Boasberg, the judge, gave Judicial Watch until early February to respond to the DOJ position in the litigation.