President Barack Obama should reconsider his decision not to release the photographs of Osama bin Laden's body. The presumption should be for openness and disclosure of government records, not secrecy. The president has not made a compelling argument that the photographs of the corpse should be kept from the public.
The administration cites two primary reasons for treating the bin Laden photos as government secrets. First, it argues that national security could be compromised and the photographs could further incite the nation's enemies. Second, it says the pictures are so disturbing that their release would send the wrong message about America's values and offend public sensibilities.
"It is very 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," Obama said in an interview for CBS News' 60 Minutes, which is to be broadcast Sunday. "That's not who we are. We don't trot this stuff out as trophies."
That is not a persuasive case for government secrecy in this situation. Details of the courageous raid on the walled compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was hiding already have been released, and the administration promptly corrected its initial description. There is little doubt throughout the world that bin Laden has been killed, and it seems unlikely that photos of bin Laden's body could further inflame animosity against the United States among al-Qaida members and others with such hatred toward democracy and freedom. The photographs of the corpse might serve as a clearer message that the United States remains committed to fighting terrorism and that there will be consequences for killing innocents like those Americans who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks.
Bin Laden was shot once in the head and once in the chest at close range, and the photographs of his corpse are undoubtedly graphic. That does not justify the government keeping them secret. Pictures from military operations throughout history often have been terribly unsettling, but they provide a powerful public record of the horrors of war. Media outlets can make their own decisions about how and if to publish the bin Laden photos, and the public can choose whether to view them.
The Obama administration does not have a distinguished record of openness. The president also fought the release of photos that confirmed the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by the American military. While those photos also were gruesome, they shocked the national conscience and helped re-establish that America's values do not condone the torture of prisoners. Government secrecy that cannot be justified for national security or other narrow grounds is not in the public interest — whether it is backed by a Democrat in the White House or a Republican-led Florida Legislature which just approved legislation that would remove from the public record 911 calls, photos and videos from crimes involving death.
Photos that Pakistani officials took of others killed in the firefight at bin Laden's compound already are public. Facebook and other Internet sites are filled with photos of a fake bin Laden corpse. In this digital era of WikiLeaks and other unconventional efforts to distribute confidential government documents, it is only a matter of time before bin Laden photos find their way into the public domain. Having failed to make a convincing case for secrecy, Obama should stand for openness and release the photos before someone does it for him.