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Military leaders wanted to destroy their photos of Osama bin Laden's body

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Obama during bin Laden raid
Obama during bin Laden raid

On May 2nd, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed by United States special forces. But photos used to verify bin Laden's identity (and confirm his death) have never been released publicly. Now, a newly obtained email from Admiral William McRaven reveals that military officials went out of their way to prevent any images of the graphic scene from leaking. "One particular item that I want to emphasize is photos; particularly UBLs remains," McRaven wrote in an email dated May 13th, 2011. "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.]"

Did McRaven know of the outstanding FOIA request?

That's the only visible line in the heavily redacted message; the recipient of McRaven's stern warning is unknown. It's also unknown what option he presented as an alternative to destroying the photos, but McRaven seemed intent on making sure the CIA was the only agency with visual evidence of bin Laden's death in its possession. The email was provided to activist group Judicial Watch as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, which says that it filed a lawsuit for release of the photos "hours" before McRaven's classified conversation took place. It's unclear whether McRaven was aware of the outstanding FOIA request at the time of his orders.

There's no indication that photos or videos of bin Laden's corpse were actually destroyed in response to the order, but the US government has steadfastly refused to share them with the world. President Obama and other officials have insisted that the graphic nature of the content — bin Laden reportedly suffered a serious head wound during the Pakistan raid — could incite violence and bring al-Qaeda new disciples. "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," Obama would later say during an appearance on 60 Minutes. "That's not who we are." Obama said that various tests (including DNA sampling) left no doubt: Osama bin Laden was dead.

But in the absence of visual proof, numerous conspiracy theories surrounding bin Laden's fate have been floated by those doubtful of the government's official account. A leak of the images at some point certainly seems within the realm of reason, but the military has clearly taken numerous measures to prevent that and stay true to the President's decision.