WASHINGTON — Select members of Congress are making appointments at CIA headquarters to view graphic photos of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. But the American people might have to wait decades to see images of the al-Qaida leader who was killed in Pakistan by Navy SEALs during a daring middle-of-the-night raid.
The CIA is allowing members of the House and Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees to see the photos in a secure room at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Va., a CIA spokesman said Wednesday. Lawmakers cannot take copies of the photos with them.
Access on Capitol Hill to privileged information, whether it’s a military secret, campaign strategy or the identity of a political nominee, is the coin of the realm in Washington. Knowing what so many others don’t can raise public profiles and spice careers in ways that methodically toiling over legislation and casting floor votes cannot.
The CIA invitations went out to the lawmakers who oversee spy missions and military operations.
GOP Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was a largely unknown Michigan lawmaker when he was appointed to the post in December after Republicans won House control. Bin Laden’s death has catapulted him into a different league as an expert and insider, a familiar face now on television news shows.
Sen. James Inhofe, a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said he saw photos of bin Laden’s body Wednesday at the CIA, making him the first member of Congress to take advantage of the spy agency’s offer. Inhofe said he spent nearly an hour looking over more than a dozen photos of Osama’s body. The photos were taken at the scene and on board the U.S. Navy ship that buried bin Laden’s body at sea.
One of the photos was of bin Laden’s head and showed what appeared to be the fatal wound, according to Inhofe, R-Okla. “Either a bullet, the significant bullet, went through the ear and out the eye socket, or vice versa,” Inhofe said in an interview.
Brain matter was hanging out of the eye socket, Inhofe said. “It wasn’t a very pretty picture,” he said.
The photos from the USS Carl Vinson showing bin Laden’s body being prepared for burial in the North Arabian sea are less jarring, he said.
“There are always people who are going to say, ‘Until I see it, I won’t believe it,’” Inhofe said. “Those are the pictures that I think would convince anyone.”
Technically, Inhofe isn’t the first lawmaker to see a death photo. Rogers saw a photo of bin Laden’s body during a May 2 visit to the CIA, just hours after the raid.
U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s congressional delegation were given the chance to view photos of the slain al-Qaida leader because they serve on the Armed Services or Intelligence committees.
The three said they have no desire to see the photos because they have no doubts that bin Laden was shot dead in the May 1 raid on his home in Pakistan. Collins further said that al-Qaida has publicly conceded that bin Laden is dead.
The disclosure that the Obama administration was keeping the photos at CIA headquarters could have important legal implications.
The Associated Press and others have requested copies of the photos and other materials under the Freedom of Information Act, which applies to the CIA but not to the White House. Legal experts initially wondered whether the White House would act as custodian of the photos and other records to keep the information from becoming public through the open records law.
The decision to send lawmakers to the CIA to see the images indicates that the agency controls the photos, said Daniel Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University’s Washington College of Law. It also could mean that anyone who wants the photos could be in for a long wait and lengthy legal battle.
The 1984 CIA Information Act allows the agency to exempt highly sensitive “operational files” from searches reviews or disclosures under the open records law. Operational files include foreign intelligence or counterintelligence operations.
“If the CIA is the sole custodian of the photos in all forms, and it treats them as operational files, then that’s an enormous barrier to access,” said Metcalfe, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy. “That can be challenged in court, of course.” But he noted that there is no end date in the law for the special protection for such material.
Rogers supports President Barack Obama’s decision not to release the photos to the public. Obama has said that doing so could inflame anti-American sentiment overseas and put U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq at risk. “Osama bin Laden is not a trophy,” Rogers said.
Most Americans agree. An AP-GfK poll shows 64 percent of those questioned don’t think the U.S. should make public the photos of bin Laden’s body public. Also, 34 percent favored release and 2 percent said they didn’t know, according to the poll results.
Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who plans to look over the photos, believes that having people from two branches of government look at the images is “due diligence,” spokeswoman Tara Trujillo said.
Other lawmakers had no interest in seeing them.
“I’m quite satisfied Osama bin Laden is dead,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., a member of House Armed Services Committee.
Republican Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a Marine combat veteran, said Obama made the right call. “I don’t have any fascination with looking at photos of gunshot wounds to the face,” Coffman said. “I take their word for it.”
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Kimberly Dozier and Sam Hananel in Washington and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.