AP Fighting With Government Over Bin Laden Photo FOIA Request

05/18/2011 01:52 pm ET | Updated Jul 18, 2011

WASHINGTON — The Associated Press on Wednesday protested the Obama administration's refusal to quickly consider AP's request for military and civilian government records related to the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

In a written appeal filed with the Defense Department, the AP said that unnecessary bureaucratic delays harm the public interest and allow anonymous U.S. officials to selectively leak details of the May 2 mission that resulted in bin Laden's death.

The AP has asked under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to review a range of materials, such as contingency plans for bin Laden's capture, reports on the performance of equipment during the mission and copies of DNA tests confirming the al-Qaida leader's identity. The AP also has asked for video and photographs taken from the mission, including photos made of bin Laden after he was killed.

The AP had asked that the Defense Department quickly consider its request under a legal provision known as expedited processing, which dramatically shortens the amount of time the government takes in such cases. Without expedited processing, requests for sensitive materials can be delayed for months and even years. The AP submitted its request to the Pentagon less than one day after bin Laden's death.

The Defense Department last week refused AP's request for a speedy review. It said the AP failed to demonstrate an urgent or compelling need to review the records or show that the information has a particular value that would be lost if not provided in an expedited manner. The U.S. government spent billions of dollars pursuing bin Laden, the world's most notorious terrorist, after the September 2001 attacks against New York and Washington, and his death at the hands of Navy SEALs has dominated headlines and network news.

The AP's appeal challenges the Pentagon's denial. Without prompt access to these and other records about the mission, the AP said, there is no way to ensure that unspecified government officials are held accountable for their statements about the events inside bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, a military garrison town outside Pakistan's capital.

AP's senior managing editor for U.S. news, Mike Oreskes, said the purpose of the federal open records law is to inform the public about government activity while issues of importance are being discussed. Few government actions in recent years have been more pivotal or drawn more attention and discussion than the raid on bin Laden's compound, he said.

"While the government has released some information, there is much that remains to be known about the raid, its planning and aftermath," Oreskes said. "That is the reason for our request."

The AP's appeal cites President Barack Obama's pledge to be the most transparent and accountable in American history. Obama has refused to release death photos of bin Laden to avoid the possibility of inflaming anti-American sentiment overseas. Obama's decision is both supported and opposed by members of Congress who have seen the photos in a secure room at CIA headquarters.

"Delaying release of the information harms the public interest in knowing what actions were taken by the government in preparation for the mission, and what information was learned after the fact, including whether the information is being properly conveyed to the public now," the AP's appeal said.

The government also has received requests for information about the bin Laden raid from other organizations. National Public Radio has submitted requests with the Navy and CIA for video and photography. Citizens United and Judicial Watch, public interest groups based in Washington, have filed requests with several federal agencies for the video and photos.

The AP's request for the bin Laden records has been placed in the "complex" queue, the Defense Department said, due to the time it will take to search for all the information sought and to consult with other agencies that may have an interest in the records.

There are prominent differences in the amount of time the department takes to handle complex requests that don't receive an expedited review.

In 2010, complex requests for which information ultimately was granted took an average of 127 days to process, according to Defense Department FOIA statistics. The highest number of days needed to process a complex request was 4,314 days, or close to 12 years, the statistics show. But requests granted expedited review were handled in an average of eight days – nearly 16 times faster, the figures show.

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