President Barack Obama decided yesterday not to release photographic evidence of Osama bin Laden’s death, saying the U.S. shouldn’t exploit such images as “trophies.”
In an interview with the CBS program “60 Minutes,” Obama said a release of the “very graphic” photos of the al-Qaeda leader’s corpse might be used by extremists as propaganda to incite violence, creating a national security risk.
“We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies,” the president said, according to excerpts released by CBS. “The fact of the matter is, this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received, and I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he’s gone.”
The president’s decision ended a debate within his administration over whether to release photos taken after bin Laden was killed during a raid by U.S. special operations forces on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The U.S. strike also provided a potential trove of intelligence. Bin Laden had about 500 euros and some phone numbers sewn into his clothing when he was killed, according to a government official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. Authorities also are examining the contents of computer drives and storage media that were seized in the raid.
White House press secretary Jay Carney, who has described the photographs as “gruesome,” said Obama had been leaning against release and took time to get the views of his national security team. A majority of the president’s advisers were against publishing the images, he said.
The president’s decision concerns “all visual evidence” of bin Laden’s death, Carney said, though some of the information about how the identification was made may be made available.
Bin Laden’s identity was confirmed through photo comparisons, DNA and other means, including verification by his wife at the compound. The body, weighted down, was released into the Arabian Sea following a Muslim funeral ritual performed aboard a ship by U.S. military officers.
Obama told CBS the steps taken by the U.S. leave “no doubt” that it was bin Laden, and releasing the images could serve as a propaganda tool while not helping to sway the opinion of people who don’t believe the al-Qaeda leader is dead.
“We don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference,” the president said.
Lawmakers, some of whom were briefed by Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon Panetta, were divided on the issue of releasing the images.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said “the risks of release outweigh the benefits.”
“Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway, and there is a real risk that releasing the photos will only serve to inflame public opinion in the Middle East,” he said in a statement.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said the photos should be released to “prove” that bin Laden is dead and that a failure to do so will “unnecessarily prolong this debate.”
Questions Over Account
Carney continued to face questions yesterday about the U.S. account of the raid, which was revised by the administration after initial briefings by White House and Defense Department officials indicated that bin Laden engaged in a firefight with the U.S. team and he or other men in the house used women as shields.
“A lot of information came out quickly,” Carney said. “When we needed to clarify some of the information that we had as more information came in, we’ve provided that.”
According to a narrative prepared by the Defense Department and released by the White House May 3, the woman killed in the raid was hit by crossfire. Bin Laden’s wife rushed a member of the assault team and was wounded in the leg. Bin Laden was unarmed, though he put up unspecified resistance, when he was shot.
Attorney General Eric Holder said yesterday the killing complied with the law. “The operation against bin Laden was justified,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing in Washington. “It’s lawful to target an enemy commander in the field.”
Holder said bin Laden took no steps to surrender, and the U.S. actions were “consistent with our values.”