In an email dated May 13, 2011, then-Vice Adm. William McRaven issued an order concerning photos of bin Laden, particularly of his remains, saying "all photos should have been turned over to the CIA; if you still have them destroy them immediately or get them" to a redacted destination, CNN reported Tuesday.
The email was obtained by the conservative Judicial Watch activist group, which called for the release of photos of the May 2001 special forces raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The heavily redacted email was released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
It's not clear whether any photos of bin Laden's remains were destroyed. CNN said McRaven declined to comment.
Retired Gen. James Marks, a military analyst for the U.S. broadcaster, says if McRaven ordered photos destroyed, he may have been trying to protect matters related to operation, as well as ensure no one kept any photos or video of the covert raid they weren't authorized to keep.
Days after the raid, President Obama told CBS' "60 Minutes" he would not authorize the release of any images of bin Laden's corpse because such an image posed a security risk.
"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," Obama said.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told CNN he was concerned that Americans' right to know about their government's actions was being "circumscribed because we don't want to offend terrorists and their sympathizers? That to me is unbelievable."
"This is a historic raid," said Fitton, who has been unsuccessful in the courts in his quest to have the information made public. People have a right to this information."