WASHINGTON - Public disclosure of graphic photos and video taken of Osama bin Laden after U.S. commandos killed him would damage national security and lead to attacks on American property and personnel, the Obama administration contends in court documents.
In a response late Monday to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group seeking the imagery, Justice Department attorneys said the CIA has found 52 photographs and video recordings of the May 1 operation in Pakistan.
They argued the images of the deceased bin Laden are classified and are being withheld from the public to avoid inciting violence against Americans overseas and compromising secret systems and techniques used by the CIA and the military.
The Justice Department has asked the court to dismiss Judicial Watch's lawsuit because the records the group wants are "wholly exempt from disclosure," according to the filing.
Photos: The killing of Osama bin Laden
Complete coverage: The killing of Osama bin Laden
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, accused the Obama administration of making a "political decision" to keep the bin Laden imagery secret. "We shouldn't throw out our transparency laws because complying with them might offend terrorists," Fitton said in a statement. "The historical record of Osama bin Laden's death should be released to the American people as the law requires."
The Associated Press has filed Freedom of Information Act requests to review a range of materials, such as contingency plans for bin Laden's capture, reports on the performance of equipment during the assault on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and copies of DNA tests confirming the al Qaeda leader's identity. The AP also has asked for video and photographs taken from the mission, including photos made of bin Laden after he was killed.
The Obama administration refused AP's request to consider quickly its request for the records. AP appealed the decision, arguing that unnecessary bureaucratic delays harm the public interest and allow anonymous U.S. officials to selectively leak details of the mission. Without expedited processing, requests for sensitive materials can be delayed for months and even years. The AP submitted its request to the Pentagon less than one day after bin Laden's death.
In a declaration included in the documents, John Bennett, director of the CIA's National Clandestine Service, said many of the photos and video recordings are "quite graphic, as they depict the fatal bullet wound to (bin Laden) and other similarly gruesome images of his corpse." Images were taken of bin Laden's body at the Abbottabad compound, where he was killed by a Navy SEAL team, and during his burial at sea from the USS Carl Vinson, Bennett said.
"The public release of the responsive records would provide terrorist groups and other entities hostile to the United States with information to create propaganda which, in turn, could be used to recruit, raise funds, inflame tensions, or rally support for causes and actions that reasonably could be expected to result in exceptionally grave damage to both the national defense and foreign relations of the United States," Bennett wrote.
Navy Adm. William McRaven, the top officer at U.S. Special Operations Command, said in a separate declaration that releasing the imagery could put the special operations team that carried out the assault on bin Laden's compound at risk by making them "more readily identifiable in the future."
Before his current assignment, McRaven led the Joint Special Operations Command, the organization in charge of the military specialized counterterrorism units.