For many years we have advocated for transparency in government. We will continue to do so. That said, there was a recent revelation about a government attempt to suppress information that we believe should in fact be withheld from the public.
As reported by CNN.com, within two weeks of the now-famous Seal Team 6 raid, the head of U.S. special forces issued orders that all photos of Osama bin Laden’s dead body be either turned in or destroyed, a newly released document shows.
In an e-mail dated May 13, 2011, then-Vice Adm. William McRaven wrote: “One particular item that I want to emphasize is photos; particularly UBLs remains. At this point — all photos should have been turned over to the CIA; if you still have them, destroy them immediately or get them to the [redacted.]”
This e-mail was obtained by the conservative activist group, Judicial Watch, which has called for the public release of photos of the raid in Pakistan that led to bin Laden’s death. The e-mail — nearly all of which was redacted — was made public under a Freedom of Information Act request.
While the public has a right to know the vast majority of things done on its behalf by the government, this is an instance in which the information (i.e. images) sought have little probative value, but a high potential for the titillating quench of morbid curiosity. To argue otherwise, is to deny that fact.
A variety of political, law enforcement and military officials have echoed this sentiment, while highlighting another potential peril.
President Barack Obama told the CBS news program 60 Minutes: “”It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool.”
Similarly, former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes said he would have similar concerns if photos of the terrorist’s body were made public.
“You would see those images forever on television. That could lead to more recruitment of future al Qaeda members, making him a martyr,” Fuentes observed.
All onlookers would have to agree that the cause of radical Islam needs no help in promulgating additional martyrs — especially one with the symbolic heft of bin Laden.
Even so, the president of Judicial Watch, Tom Fitton, remains unconvinced. “Americans’ right to know about what their government is up to should be circumscribed because we don’t want to offend terrorists and their sympathizers?” he said. “That to me is unbelievable. This is a historic raid. People have a right to this information.”
Fitton’s willful ignorance of the inherent danger of releasing these images teeters on absurdity. This absurdity stems from the fact that photos of a nearly decapitated man add very little to the common understanding and acceptance of the raid.
What would graphic images contribute to the broader public understanding of the event? Whose mind would it change or what useful message would it convey?
At the end of the day, Fitton’s group wants what it wants just because it wants it. This is little more than an empty limit-testing exercise. The group gets free media exposure. It gets to parade around under the pretense of expanding liberty and justice.
We’re all for free and open access to the machinations of our government. Black box operations typically promote a mentality we don’t need. That said, some things are better left unseen. These images fall squarely into that camp.