Protecting the privacy of Osama bin Laden

Responding to a FOIA request related to the flights the bin Ladens took in the days after 9/11, the FBI takes pains not to name names.

Published April 22, 2005 12:24PM (EDT)

The Bush administration has never been particularly concerned with the rights of detainees it suspects are members of al-Qaida: It has insisted that they're not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Convention, and it has argued that they have no right to trials in U.S. courts. But there's one right the administration seems strangely eager to protect: Osama bin Laden's right to privacy.

Responding to a Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to the flights taken by bin Laden family members and other Saudis in the days after 9/11, the FBI has released documents from its files regarding the bin Laden family -- only all specific references to the bin Laden family have been deleted from some of them. The result is an odd kind of fill-in-the-blank test, easily passed by anyone who has been paying attention. There are a lot of sentences like these: "______ is a member of a large and wealthy Saudi family," and, "In 1994, the family of ________ issued a statement expressing its 'regret, denunciation and condemnation of all acts that _________ may have committed.'" Now, who could that be?

And if you have any trouble filling in the blanks yourself, don't worry: Almost every line is followed by a footnote providing the publicly available back-up for the statements. Of course, that information has blanks, too. But when you're told that the Washington Post ran a story on Sept. 13, 2001, headlined, " __________: a master impresario," it takes just a minute on Google -- .33 seconds, to be exact -- to figure out that the subject of the story was Osama bin Laden.

In justifying the redactions, Judicial Watch says, the FBI cited a provision of the Freedom of Information Act that allows the government to withhold "personnel and medical files and similar files" when the disclosure of such information "would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." Given the slap-dash nature of the redactions, it's hard to believe that the FBI really thought that it was protecting bin Laden's privacy when it removed the family name from the documents it turned over. So it's fair to ask: If the FBI wasn't protecting bin Laden, who was it trying to protect?

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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