Image: Leon Panetta
Alex Brandon  /  AP
CIA Director Leon Panetta, right, leaves after briefing members of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on  May 3. Some 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.
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updated 5/14/2011 10:58:40 AM ET 2011-05-14T14:58:40

The Defense Department is refusing to do a speedy review of a Freedom of Information Act request for graphic photos of Osama bin Laden's corpse, setting the stage for a protracted battle over access to the images.

In a letter to The Associated Press, the department said the AP did not demonstrate an urgent or compelling need for the photos or show that the information has a particular value that would be lost if not provided in an expedited manner. As a result, it is not clear when or if the photos will be provided.

The AP received the letter Friday, 11 days after it requested the photos and other material stemming from the May 2 raid by a team of Navy SEALs on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

President Barack Obama has promised to make his administration the most transparent in American history. The push by the AP and other news organizations to make the bin Laden photos public could put that commitment to a key test.

In 2010, the Defense Department granted expedited processing of FOIA requests nearly 40 percent of time, a far better rate than agencies such as the departments of State and Homeland Security.

Whether the photos should be made public has been a constant source of debate since the stunning announcement of bin Laden's death. Obama decided last week not to release the death photos of bin Laden so as not to "spike the football" and possibly inflame anti-American sentiment overseas.

U.S. government officials have described the photos as gruesome. Bin Laden was killed by two bullets, with the fatal shot going through his head.

Dan Metcalfe, executive director of the Collaboration on Government Secrecy at American University's Washington College of Law, said it would be difficult for the government to label death photos of bin Laden as classified unless there were a person or a piece of equipment in the photo that needed to be kept secret.

"It's hard to see how such a photo in and of itself could properly be classified, and with that decision ultimately sustained in court, on the basis of national security harm," said Metcalfe, former head of the Justice Department's Office of Information and Privacy.

Members of the House and Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees have been allowed to see the death photos in a secure room at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Lawmakers are not permitted to take copies of the photos with them.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, viewed the photos Wednesday and said one of them showed brain matter coming out of bin Laden's eye socket. Others, however, were taken as the body was being prepared for burial at sea and are less jarring, said Inhofe, who favors releasing at least a few photos to dispel any claims bin Laden wasn't killed.

The disclosure that the photos were at CIA headquarters could mean the spy agency and not the Pentagon controls the records. The AP has also filed a Freedom of Information request with the CIA that seeks expedited processing. The CIA has not said how it will handle that request.

The Defense Department's decision not to expedite the AP's request for the photos isn't a rejection but puts the request on a much slower track. Under the open records law, federal agencies have 20 days to respond to FOIA requests, a deadline that is rarely met.

In a related development, Judicial Watch, a public interest group, filed a FOIA lawsuit against the Defense Department on Friday after the department said it would not meet the 20-day deadline for meeting the group's own request for the photos.

"The American people have a right to know, by law, basic information about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Incredibly, the Obama administration told us that it has no plans to comply with the Freedom of Information law, so we must now go to court," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Onslaught of info paints clear portrait of bin Laden

  1. Closed captioning of: Onslaught of info paints clear portrait of bin Laden

    >>> now we turn overseas. the latest news resulting from the death of osama bin ladin . we seem to be learning more about him in the 11 days since his death at the hands of u.s. navy s.e.a.l.s than we've been able to learn in the past ten years. thanks to all that stuff the s.e.a.l.s were able to grab from his house on their way out, including a handwritten notebook. nbc 's peter alexander in islamabad again for us tonight. peter, good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, good evening to you. nbc news has learned in that handwritten notebook, osama bin ladin was focused on what one u.s. official calls spectacular attacks. he specifically mentioned four major u.s. cities as potential al qaeda targets. new york, washington, chicago and los angeles . senior u.s. military and intelligence officials tell nbc news from inside his hideout, bin ladin was fully engaged to carry out other 9/11 style attacks. describing him as a micro manager and meticulous note taker. he used his compound as a command and control center for al qaeda . compiling his thoughts and plans for new attacks in multiple documents including a handwritten 10-page notebook.

    >> he mentions the big cities , he mentions certain important dates, for example, the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 which is coming up. he mentions transportation, aviation and rail.

    >> reporter: this wave of intelligence is emerging through a government campaign of briefings and orchestrated leaks. he was preoccupied with attacking the united states over all other targets. a fixation that led to friction with followers. nbc news has learned the president and top u.s. military officials were listed as potential targets. but the vice president was said to be less of a target. why the information onslaught?

    >> they're sending a message to members of al qaeda that the americans may have information about you, they may have information about your whereabouts, about your plans, about your intentions, and it causes them to question what they're going to do.

    >> reporter: also seized in the raid, personal correspondence between bin ladin and senior al qaeda leaders. he spoke of where to attack, what times to attack, and which of his officers would be right for specific jobs. the navy s.e.a.l.s focused primarily on bin ladin 's office and left behind detailed logs of his and al qaeda 's activities and movements. logs now in the possession of pakistani authorities who have not yet agreed to share them. and tonight the associated press is reporting that bin ladin was actually a prolific e-mail writer, even though his compound had no internet access . through a complex system of thumb drives and couriers he was able to get his message out for years, while avoiding detection.

    >> peter alexander on the case in islamabad again tonight. peter, thanks.

Photos: The compound

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  1. Pakistani boys while demolition takes place on the compound where Osama bin Laden was slain in 2011 in the northwestern town of Abbottabad on Feb. 26, 2012.

    More photos from Abbottabad one year after Osama bin Laden (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial view shows the residential area of Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden was found and killed by U.S. commandos. (Asif Hassan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A general view of the town of Abbottabad, May 6. Bin Laden was living in a large house close to a military academy in this garrison town, a two-and-a-half hour-drive from the capital, Islamabad. (Khaqan Khawer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamaat-e-Islami rally to condemn the killing of bin Laden, in Abbottabad on May 6. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A Pakistani woman photographs her daughter on May , at a gate of the compound where bin Laden was caught and killed. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. School girls pass by armed Pakistani policemen guarding the sealed entrance to the compound in Abbottabad, May 5, in which bin Laden had been living. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Part of a damaged helicopter rests in the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed bin Laden, May 2, in a photo made available on May 4. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Boys herd sheep past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5. (Akhtar Soomro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pakistani security officials arrive at the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad on Wednesday, May 4. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Local residents gather outside a burned section of bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. (Aamir Qureshi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Pakistani police officer gestures at a checkpoint along a road leading to a house where bin Laden was captured and killed in Abbottabad. Area residents were still confused and suspicious about bin Laden's death, which took place before dawn on Monday. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Pakistani children look out from a high vantage point at bin Laden's compound on Tuesday, May 3. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Pakistan army troops remove canvas screens from outside the compound's house. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Neighbors and news media gather around the compound, right, after authorities ease security around the property. (Aqeel Ahmed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A satellite image, taken June 15, 2005, shows the Abbottabad compound, center, where bin Laden was killed in on Monday. (DigitalGlobe via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Pakistani soldier secures the compound. (T. Mughal / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The compound is seen in flames after it was attacked early May 2 in this still image taken from cellphone video footage. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Part of a damaged U.S. MH-60 helicopter lies the compound. The helicopter was destroyed by U.S. forces after a mechanical failure left it unable to take off. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A still image from video obtained by ABC News shows blood stains in the interior of the house where bin Laden was killed. (ABC News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Aerial views released by the Department of Defense show the area in Abbottabad in 2004, left, before the house was built, and in 2011, right. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A graphic released by the Department of Defense shows the compound where bin Laden was killed. (Department of Defense via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Pakistani soldiers and police officers patrol near the house, background, where bin Laden had lived. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The hideout of bin Laden is seen the day after his death. (Farooq Naeem / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Students look toward the compound from a nearby religious school in Abbottabad. (Faisal Mahmood / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Pakistani security officials survey the walls of the compound where bin Laden was killed. The outer walls were between 10 and 18 feet high. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Pakistani soldiers stand guard near the compound May 2. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Boys collect pieces of metal from a wheat field outside bin Laden's house, seen in the background, on May 3. People showed off small parts of what appeared to be a U.S. helicopter that the U.S. says malfunctioned and was blown up by the American team as it retreated. (Anjum Naveed / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Pakistani security officials stand guard at the main entrance to the compound on May 3. (MD Nadeem / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. An image from video seized from the walled compound of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and released by the U.S. Department of Defense, shows Osama bin Laden watching TV. He is said to have spent his last weeks in a house divided, amid wives riven by suspicions. On the top floor, sharing his bedroom, was his youngest wife and favorite. The trouble came when his eldest wife showed up and moved into the bedroom on the floor below. (Department of Defense via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
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    Above: Slideshow (29) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - The compound
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (81) After the raid: Inside bin Laden's compound - World reaction
  3. Image:
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    Slideshow (81) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - World reaction
  4. Image:
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    Slideshow (29) World reacts to death of Osama bin Laden - The compound

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