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AP files FOIA request for access to photos of Osama bin Laden compound, raid

The Atlantic Wire, in one of those Ouroboros moments that crop up whenever the media covers itself, is reporting that AP correspondents have filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Obama administration to release photos and videos of the raid last week on Osama bin Laden’s compound.

Several grisly photos (warning: graphic pictures of dead bodies) of the aftermath of the early-morning raid have already surfaced. The Reuters news agency obtained them from a member of Pakistan’s security forces who entered bin Laden’s compound after a team of Navy SEALs shot and killed bin Laden. None of the photographs, however, show bin Laden, and President Obama has said his administration will not release any such pictures out of concern that they would incite additional violence or be used for anti-American propaganda.

The AP, however, maintains that such a judgment call runs counter to its ability to determine whether the photographs are newsworthy. Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor of the AP, told The Atlantic’s John Hudson, “In the week since the raid there’s been a whole series of story-lines about what happened in this raid. At this point, anything that might shed more light on what occurred is potentially quite newsworthy. So we would like this imagery to fully understand what happened during this event.”

In the text of its FOIA request, the AP wrote hopefully to the administration, reminding it of the promises that had been during the Obama campaign:

“The Obama White House ‘pledged to be the most transparent government in U.S. history,” wrote the AP, “and to comply much more closely with the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did.’”

The AP joins Politico, Fox News, Judicial Watch and Citizens United (the controversial right-wing nonprofit group at the center of a notorious and contested Supreme Court decision) in filing FOIA requests for the pictures. So far, Politico is the only organization to report that it’s received an acknowledgment of its request, which has been forwarded to U.S. Army Intelligence.

If in fact that means that the Army has possession of the photos, it might make the FOIA requests a bit harder for the government to fight. Were the photos classified as presidential records, they couldn’t be released until at least after Obama leaves office, but if, as appears to be the case, the Army has them, it’s slightly more difficult to block their release to news agencies like the AP, Politico and Fox News.

Still, even though the Army is subject to immediate FOIA requests, petitions to see the pictures from the media and the public could be shot down for any number of reasons. In a post on the blog for George Washington University’s National Security Archive, the organization’s Nate Jones laid out several ways that the government could make the photos exempt from FOIA requests, thus blocking their release.

Writing last week, before the crop of FOIA requests was known, Jones explained that the government could use any of several exemption statutes pertaining to national security to block the photos’ release, or it could even cite privacy laws protecting the bin Laden family, an action for which there is actually precedent (PDF).

If all else fails, Jones says, President Obama can lean on Congress to quickly pass a law granting a statutory exemption to the photos — meaning there would be a case-specific injunction against release. That may seem at first blush like a last-ditch effort, but there are in fact 240 such exemptions currently on the books, including one against the release of any more pictures of detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib than have already been made public.

Of course, any organization faced with a FOIA exemption can appeal the decision, but it’s a drawn-out process unlikely in such a high-profile case to bear any fruit. Barring any major surprises (or leaks), the photographs of bin Laden’s death seem unlikely to ever see the light of day.

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