President Obama's decision to withhold the visual evidence of Osama bin Laden's death has created a fundamental disagreement between the White House and one of the largest journalism organizations in the world. "This information is important for the historical record," said Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor at The Associated Press. "That's our view."
Last Monday, the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the photographic and video evidence taken during the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The organization's FOIA request included a reminder of the president's campaign pledge and a plea to be more transparent than his predecessor. "The Obama White House 'pledged to be the most transparent government in U.S. history," wrote the AP, "and to comply much more closely with the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did.'"
Two days later, the president told 60 Minutes he would not release any of the footage related to the raid, including video of bin Laden's deep sea burial and photographs of his slain corpse. Though Oreskes voices his disagreement diplomatically, there's no way around it: The AP believes the president is wrong to maintain exclusive ownership of the evidence. "We're asking to see it," said Oreskes in an interview with The Atlantic Wire. "It's about us saying we would like to make our own news judgements about news worthy material."
The president insists that releasing bin Laden's photograph violates common decency and puts U.S. troops in harm's ways. "We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," he told Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes. "I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk."
Many in the press have agreed. "To put his head on a digital spike and display his mangled head is, indeed, not the Western way," wrote Andrew Sullivan on Wednesday.
But a journalist's prerogative is to ask questions and find answers, said Oreskes. "It's our job as journalists to seek this material."
"We're not deciding in advance to publish this material," he pledged. "We would like our journalists, who are working very hard, to see this material and then we'll decide what's publishable and what's not publishable based on the possibility that it's inflammatory."
Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Susan Collins, Rep. Peter King and The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan have each sought the photos release at one point or another. They each maintained that bin Laden, of course, is dead and the White House's narrative is to be believed. But photos should be released to tamp down conspiracy theories.
For Oreskes, the photo is an important piece of evidence to establish what happened during the Navy SEALs raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound. "In the week since the raid there's been a whole series of story-lines about what happened in this raid," said Oreskes. "At this point, anything that might shed more light on what occurred is potentially quite newsworthy. So we would like this imagery to fully understand what happened during this event."
"I can't tell you what understanding we would get," he prefaced. "But we would like to see it and compare it with other things we're being told about this raid both by U.S. officials and officials in other countries."
The AP isn't alone in wanting more insight on the specifics of the raid. When it eventually surfaced that bin Laden was not killed in a firefight, his wife wasn't used as a human shield, there was no live footage of the event and the "mansion" where he lived was only worth between $250,000 and $480,000, many became skeptical of the White House's narrative. Other organizations that have filed FOIAs include Politico, Fox News, Judicial Watch and Citizens United. Oreskes sympathizes with the president. "This is obviously one of his most difficult decisions and we understand that."