Thursday, May 12, 2011

Federal Law May Force Obama to Make Bin Laden Pics Public

A number of news organizations, including AP, Fox and NPR, are claiming a federal open government law requires the White House to make public the photographs of a deceased Osama Bin Laden.

According to the Atlantic Monthly:
"Pictures of Osama bin Laden and other images from that mission would have compelling news value and public interest," said Dick Meyer, executive editor for news at NPR. "I can foresee circumstances or arguments that would lead us to refrain from publishing the images if we were to get them, but NPR should be in a position to make that decision and not simply accept the government's action."

The National Law Journal notes that national security claims might make the news groups’ difficult, but cites experts who say that the government may, ultimately, have to release the pictures, under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA):
"Theoretically, they could win," said Scott Hodes, who from 1998 to 2002 was the acting unit chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Freedom of Information/Privacy Act Section's litigation unit and is now a solo practitioner in Washington. "It will not be an easy decision. There are reasons on both sides."

The FOIA requires that all federal agency records be accessible to the public unless there exists a specific exemption....

In addition to news organizations, a number of groups have announces plans to file suit to obtain the materials, including the open government group Judicial Watch.
"President Obama's decision not to release the bin Laden photos is at odds with his promises to make his administration the most transparent in history," wrote the group. "Judicial Watch hopes its FOIA requests will provide a mechanism to release these records in an orderly fashion in compliance with the FOIA law. President Obama's reluctance to spike the football is not a lawful reason for withholding these historic public documents from the American people."

In recent history, from the Pentagon Papers to Wikileaks, the need to balance national security against the right of the citizens to open government is an ongoing, and important, public policy issue. Ultimately, as is so often the case, the issue will likely be decided in the courts.