Order: ‘Destroy’ bin Laden photos

A senior operations officer in the U.S. military ordered for photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse to be destroyed 11 days after he was killed, an email released Monday by a conservative legal group shows.

Judicial Watch released the document Monday after obtaining it through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

On May 2, 2011, the American Navy Seal team shot and killed bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Judicial Watch quickly filed a FOIA request with the Pentagon and the CIA seeking photos of bin Laden’s body, which have never been released. The Associated Press says it had also filed a request with the Pentagon asking for the photos. 


Ten days later, U.S. Special Operations Commander Adm. William McRaven ordered his subordinates to “destroy” any photos they had of bin Laden “immediately,” according to new Defense Department documents provided to Judicial Watch. The other option was turning the pictures over to the CIA. 

“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],” McRaven wrote in an email dated May 13, 2011, addressed to “Gentleman,” according to Judicial Watch. 

Most of the email was heavily blacked out.

McRaven was vice admiral at the time, and helped coordinate the operation leading up to the bin Laden raid. 

“The McRaven ‘destroy them immediately’ email is a smoking gun, revealing both contempt for the rule of law and the American’s people right to know,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement Monday. “The Obama administration has tried to cover this scandal up — and our lawsuit exposed it. We demand further investigation of the effort to destroy documents about the bin Laden raid.”

A draft report released by the Defense Department’s inspector general last July first suggested McRaven had issued the order, but the report didn’t contain any specifics.

The email obtained by Judicial Watch, which it published Monday, is the first evidence showing the photo purge. 

In June 2011, Judicial Watch filed FOIA lawsuits against the Defense Department and CIA, but Pentagon officials said at the time it had “no records responsive to plaintiff’s request.”

About a year later, in April 2012, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg sided with the agencies and said any photos could remain classified. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld that ruling in May, and the Supreme Court later rejected Judicial Watch’s request to review the issue as well. 

After bin Laden’s death, the Obama administration decided not to release any photos of his corpse. To prove his death, officials said they visually identified him, compared him to other photographs of himself, and positively matched his DNA.

Some news organizations published a graphic image of bin Laden’s face that Pakistani television first broadcast, which they believed to be his dead body. It was later revealed to be fake.