Watchdog group sues Pentagon for photos of bin Laden's body

Judicial Watch is suing the Department of Defense to obtain photographs of Osama bin Laden's dead body, the watchdog group announced Friday.

“I don’t think it’s as big a deal to release the documents as the administration suggests. It’s quite simple: They should be released,” said Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, in announcing the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

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Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Pentagon on May 3 for the photos of bin Laden's corpse and videos of the covert raid by Navy SEALs in which bin Laden was shot dead. Fitton said the group received a letter from the Defense Department Thursday saying the agency could not comply with the request. 

“In other words, the DoD has no intent to comply with FOIA,” Fitton said.

Under FOIA law, the administration has 30 days to respond to Judicial Watch’s lawsuit. Fitton said he was confident that Judicial Watch’s lawsuit would trigger a “substantive” response — and ultimately the release of the photos.

“In the end, I think these documents will be released, but it’s a shame that we have to go through this process to get access to this basic information and force compliance with FOIA,” he said.

In the immediate aftermath of bin Laden's death, some administration officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, suggested photos would be released to the public. But after debate within the White House, President Obama said in an interview with "60 Minutes" he would not do so.

"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 or as a propaganda tool,” he said. "We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies."

In seeking to obtain the photographic evidence, Judicial Watch filed the same request with the CIA on May 4. The CIA has not yet responded, Fitton said, but that the group intends to file another lawsuit if the agency does not comply with the request.

“We believe that the president’s comments on '60 Minutes' defending that these documents not be released are not lawful reasons for withholding them,” Fitton said. “We think that the president is overstating the impact these documents would have internationally.”

Fitton said the president's fanning of the issue was more "inflammatory" than the actual pictures. “The inflammatory act was killing bin Laden, but we shouldn’t have to apologize for that. We cannot throw out our laws because enforcing them would inflame an enemy.”

Legal technicalities could get in the way of Judicial Watch's effort to obtain the photos. If the administration deems them as White House records, they would be exempted from FOIA disclosure law.

The president could also issue a special executive order to prevent release of the photos. But if he were to make that move, he would likely be accused of backtracking on his call for "an unprecedented level of openness" in his administration.

“The gap between the president’s rhetoric [on transparency] and his actions has been astonishing,” Fitton said.