Can the Web force the release of bin Laden photos?

Demand for pictures, and risks to people searching for them, could force the administration's hand

The online search for photos of Osama bin Laden’s body has grown to enormous and sometimes comical proportions, which might eventually cause the Obama administration to rethink its decision not to release them.

Bin Laden was killed May 1 in a lightning raid by Navy SEALs at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The administration confirmed the terrorist leader's identity through facial recognition, DNA and a positive identification from one of bin Laden’s wives.

That proof, officials have contended, has made the release of the photos unnecessary. They’ve said the photos were gruesome, which could upset some people who saw them and might prompt retaliation from bin Laden supporters.

But can sound reasoning stand up against the power of the Web?

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Despite the FBI's warnings that any photos purported to be of bin Laden — touted in e-mails and other links — are fake and likely attached to scams and malware operations, people are still searching for them relentlessly.

News organizations have posted supposed photos of the terrorist leader, then withdrawn them after they were confirmed as fakes — although the fakes are still around on YouTube and plenty of other sites.

Three U.S. senators themselves were fooled by fake photos. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), all members of the House Armed Services Committee, said they had seen a photo of bin Laden’s body, then were chagrined when it turned out to be phony, MSNBC reported.

Now, members of four congressional committees — the House and Senate intelligence committees and the House and Senate armed services committees (the three faked-out senators will finally get to see the real thing) — will get to view the photos, the Washington Post reports.

But will it end there? Will the privileged few be the only ones to see them, or might other, envious members of Congress devise ways to get to see them, too? From there, it could only spread.

Meanwhile, people on the Web are taking risks with their phones, tablets and PCs in search of photos that, to date, do not exist on the Web.

And Judicial Watch is attempting to make the decision for the administration, filing a Freedom of Information Act request for release of “all photographs and/or video recordings of Osama (Usama) bin Laden taken during and/or after the U.S. military operation in Pakistan on or about May 1, 2011.”

So the administration might have to devise a practical method and timetable for releasing the photos, even if it’s against its better judgment.

Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic suggests an entrepreneurial approach, charging people to see the photos, and donating the proceeds to funding the war on terror or setting up a scholarship for the families of 9/11 victims.

Maybe they could be released to the National Archives or Library of Congress.

At any rate, the drumbeat for releasing the photos seems to be growing, and allowing select members of Congress to view them could just start the ball rolling.

By all accounts of those who have seen them, the photos are gruesome, but Jon Stewart has contended that the opening credits of any of the “CSI” shows have as much or more gore as the bin Laden photos. (“You know what we call it? Primetime.”)

The argument that releasing the photos will prove bin Laden’s death might not hold up, since most people seem to be satisfied with the evidence already and conspiracy theorists — being called “deathers” in some corners — might only give the administration credit for mastering Photoshop. After all, some people still think the lunar landings were a hoax performed on a sound stage.

But others, including Judicial Watch, have made an argument for transparency, which has been a stated goal of the Obama administration. And the demand is there, whether the interest is driven mostly by curiosity or something darker. If Donald Trump could force the release of a long-form birth certificate — when the official version had already been released — millions of users might be able to force the administration’s hand in this case.

In the end, the administration might not be able to hold back the tide. And the best reason for releasing the photos could be to protect Internet users from themselves, to keep them from chasing malicious links in e-mails, websites and social media platforms in search of the photos.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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