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Federal judges leery of release of post-killing bin Laden photos

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By McClatchy Newspapers
Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, 7:50 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Skeptical-sounding federal judges on Thursday considered whether the public can see pictures of terror mastermind Osama bin Laden taken after he had been shot dead by Navy SEALs in a raid on his hideout two years ago.

The 52 pictures, some described as “graphic” and “gruesome” by a top CIA official, highlight a Freedom of Information Act fight that climaxes just as Hollywood's version of bin Laden's death hits movie theaters. But while Hollywood's depiction has attracted both critical acclaim and political heat and was accomplished with the CIA's help, the real-world pictures snapped by elite commandos seem destined to remain secret.

“They're telling us it's a risk ... that Americans will die if we release these documents,” Judge Merrick Garland said Thursday, adding that “when the government tells us this is likely to lead to death, shouldn't we defer to that (even) more than when they say it will result in the release of secret information?”

Judge Judith Rogers, who like Garland was appointed by a Democratic president, further cited “the concern that these images could be used as propaganda.” Echoing arguments made by Obama administration officials, Rogers suggested that the propaganda concern is aggravated by the late bin Laden's prominence as al-Qaida's leader.

The explicit fears raised by two members of a three-judge appellate panel during oral arguments provided a strong indication, though no guarantee, that the court will side with the Obama administration in keeping the bin Laden photos secret.

Rejecting the Freedom of Information Act bid from a legal advocacy group called Judicial Watch would add to the cloak draped around other politically sensitive military and spy actions since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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