Skip to main content

Admiral's e-mail on photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse: 'Destroy them'

By Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, CNN
updated 7:52 AM EST, Wed February 12, 2014
Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, second from right, watch the mission to capture Osama bin Laden from the Situation Room in the White House on May 1, 2011. Click through to see reactions from around the world following the death of the al Qaeda leader. Vice President Joe Biden, left, President Barack Obama, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, second from right, watch the mission to capture Osama bin Laden from the Situation Room in the White House on May 1, 2011. Click through to see reactions from around the world following the death of the al Qaeda leader.
HIDE CAPTION
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
The death of Osama bin Laden
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Then-Vice Adm. William McRaven sent an e-mail dated May 13, 2011
  • Concerns were high about the possible leak of photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse
  • His orders: "If you still have them destroy them immediately or get them to the [redacted.]"
  • The conservative activist group Judicial Watch obtained the e-mails

(CNN) -- Within two weeks of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the head of U.S. special forces issued orders that all photos of the body be either turned in or destroyed, a newly released document shows.

In an e-mail dated May 13, 2011, then-Vice Adm. William McRaven wrote the following: "One particular item that I want to emphasize is photos; particularly UBLs remains. 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.]"

The e-mail was obtained by the conservative activist group Judicial Watch, which has called for the public release of photos of the raid in Pakistan that killed the al Qaeda leader. The e-mail, which was almost entirely redacted, was released under a Freedom of Information Act request.

See a PDF of the redacted e-mail

Admiral: Destroy Osama bin Laden photos

Days before McRaven's instructions, Judicial Watch had filed a FOIA request for such photos, and hours before, they filed a lawsuit, according to the group's president, Tom Fitton.

Gates on bin Laden's death: No cheers

"Despite there being multiple requests for this information, and a lawsuit for this information, there was a directive that was sent out, to who knows who, to destroy records," he said. "It may have been in violation of the law," he said.

Documentary examines hunt for bin Laden

It is not clear whether any photos of bin Laden's remains were actually destroyed. Through a spokesman, McRaven declined to comment.

Retired Gen. James "Spider" Marks, a CNN military analyst, says if McRaven ordered photos deleted, he may have been trying to protect operational secrets, sources and methods and trying to make sure no commandos kept any photos or video of the covert raid that they were not authorized to keep.

"It wouldn't be surprising if they shook them down, and they said 'OK, I want to make sure you don't have something that's hidden away someplace,' " he said.

In the days after the raid, President Barack Obama said he would not authorize the release of any images of bin Laden's corpse, saying it would create a security risk.

Osama bin Laden: The fast facts

"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," the president told CBS news magazine "60 Minutes."

Former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes said he would have similar concerns if photos of the terrorist's body were made public.

"You would see those images forever on television," he said. "That could lead to more recruitment of future al Qaeda members, making him a martyr."

Fitton is not persuaded by that argument.

"Americans' right to know about what their government is up to should be circumscribed because we don't want to offend terrorists and their sympathizers? That to me is unbelievable," he said. "This is a historic raid. People have a right to this information."

But so far, the courts have not sided with Judicial Watch on that question, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the organization's appeal.

The U.S. raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was conducted on May 2, 2011.

What the U.S. planned if the raid in Pakistan had not worked

'Nightmare' at home for SEAL who shot Osama bin Laden

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
A 15-year-old pregnant girl is rescued from slavery, only to be charged with having sex outside of marriage, shocked rights activists say -- a charge potentially punishable by death.
updated 11:33 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
After sushi and ramen, beef is on the list of must-eats for many visitors to Japan.
updated 12:07 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Airports judged on comfort, conveniences, cleanliness and customer service.
updated 1:48 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Scientists use CT scans to recreate a life-size image of the ancient king.
updated 5:59 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Despite billions spent on eradicating poppy production, Afghan farmers are growing bumper crops, a U.S. government report says.
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
With so many new attractions on the way, the next few years are going to be a roller coaster ride.
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Thomas Malthus famously predicted that rising populations would create a food crunch: Could this be true?
updated 5:45 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
The lives of everyone close to Oscar Pistorius and the girl he killed are changed forever, his siblings say.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Gene Simmons reflects on 40 years of KISS, and how even rock royalty needs sound business principles.
updated 6:33 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
From "Sick Man of Europe" to the world's fourth largest economy.
updated 5:15 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Each day, CNN brings you an image capturing a moment to remember, defining the present in our changing world.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT