Appeals court to consider release of photos of bin Laden's body

Thursday, January 10, 2013 - 9:41am

(CNN) -- A federal appeals court will consider Thursday whether photos of Osama bin Laden's body should be released.

Judicial Watch, a conservative legal group pushing for the release, will present arguments before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington.

"President Obama is asking the courts to rewrite (the Freedom of Information Act) to allow his administration to withhold documents simply because their disclosure may cause controversy," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement.

Debates over whether to release the photos of the al Qaeda leader have raged in some quarters ever since the May 2011 raid in Pakistan that left him dead.

The White House said that despite pressure from some lawmakers and dissent within the ranks of the president's top advisers, Obama decided not to release them.

"It is not in our national security interest ... to allow these images to become icons to rally opinion against the United States," White House press secretary Jay Carney said at the time.

Judicial Watch asked the Defense Department to comply with a Freedom of Information request for material on the raid, including photos of the September 11 mastermind lying dead on the third floor of his hideout.

A federal judge ruled in April 2012 that there were legitimate national security interests to deny disclosure.

"A picture may be worth a thousand words. And perhaps moving pictures bear an even higher value," Judge James Boasberg said. "Yet, in this case, verbal descriptions of the death and burial of Osama bin Laden will have to suffice."

Judicial Watch says its appeal makes clear the group is not seeking information about equipment or techniques used in the raid.

The government has "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,' " the appeal argues. "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."

-- CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this report.

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