Within two weeks of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the head of U.S. special forces issued orders that all photos of the 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 the following: "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.]"
The 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 killed the al Qaeda leader. The e-mail, which was almost entirely redacted, was released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Days before McRaven's instructions, Judicial Watch had filed a FOIA request for such photos, and hours before, they filed a lawsuit, according to the group's president, Tom Fitton.
"Despite there being multiple requests for this information, and a lawsuit for this information, there was a directive that was sent out, to who knows who, to destroy records," he said. "It may have been in violation of the law," he said.
It is not clear whether any photos of bin Laden's remains were actually destroyed. Through a spokesman, McRaven declined to comment.
Retired Gen. James "Spider" Marks, a CNN military analyst, says if McRaven ordered photos deleted, he may have been trying to protect operational secrets, sources and methods and trying to make sure no commandos kept any photos or video of the covert raid that they were not authorized to keep.
"It wouldn't be surprising if they shook them down, and they said 'OK, I want to make sure you don't have something that's hidden away someplace,' " he said.
In the days after the raid, President Barack Obama said he would not authorize the release of any images of bin Laden's corpse, saying it would create a security risk.
"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," the president told CBS news magazine "60 Minutes."
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," he said. "That could lead to more recruitment of future al Qaeda members, making him a martyr."
Fitton is not persuaded by that argument.
"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? That to me is unbelievable," he said. "This is a historic raid. People have a right to this information."
But so far, the courts have not sided with Judicial Watch on that question, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the organization's appeal.
The U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was conducted on May 2, 2011.