Obama will not release bin Laden photos, White House says

May 4, 2011

President Obama decided Wednesday not to release photos of Osama bin Laden’s body, saying such images could incite violence and be interpreted as displaying “trophies” of his death, the White House said.

“It’s 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 or as a propaganda tool,” Obama said in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” program. “That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”

Obama added that bin Laden “was deserving of the justice that he received” when U.S. commandos killed him and four other people in a raid on his fortress-like compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad early Monday local time.

“I think that Americans and people around the world are glad that he is gone,” Obama added. “But we don’t need to spike the football. And I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk.”

He said he discussed releasing the photos with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and his “intelligence teams,” and that all agreed with him that they should be withheld.

Excerpts of the interview with “60 Minutes” reporter Steve Kroft were read at a White House news briefing by press secretary Jay Carney. The full interview is scheduled to air Sunday.

Obama’s decision came a day after the White House backed away from initial accounts of the raid, acknowledging that bin Laden was neither armed nor using his wife as a human shield when he was shot and killed. Carney said that, according to a Defense Department account, bin Laden “resisted” when the commandos burst into his room, but neither the White House nor the Pentagon would elaborate.

In the wake of the raid, U.S. officials are pressing Pakistan to explain how bin Laden could have lived incognito for as many as six years in a bustling Pakistani city surrounded by military installations.

Bin Laden was shot in the head and chest in the raid by U.S. Navy SEALs who landed in helicopters at the compound north of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The al-Qaeda leader’s body was then flown out by helicopter and subsequently buried at sea following Islamic rites aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, according to U.S. officials.

Officials have said photos were taken of the corpse showing a gaping wound in bin Laden’s head.

A debate over whether to release the photos publicly — in part to convince skeptics that bin Laden was really killed — ensued within the Obama administration.

Asked by Kroft about doubts among some Pakistanis that bin Laden was really dead, Obama said he did not think that photos would “make any difference” in convincing conspiracy theorists determined to believe that the United States was lying about the operation.

“Certainly there’s no doubt among al-Qaeda members that he is dead,” Obama said. “There are going to be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again.”

Obama said he saw the photos himself. Asked his reaction, the president said, “It was him.”

Carney told reporters Tuesday that officials were still evaluating whether to release the photos, mindful of the “sensitivities” surrounding such a release and the question of whether doing so would serve U.S. interests. He said the photo showing the head wound, which also is apparently the image that most clearly identifies the corpse as bin Laden’s, is “gruesome” and “could be inflammatory.”

But CIA Director Leon Panetta said later that he believed the administration would ultimately release the photos. He said the “final decision” on that was up to the White House.

Panetta told reporters that, in any case, “I don’t think you have to convince the world because of the DNA and all of the other proof that we have.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the No. 2 Democrat in the House, said he agreed with Obama’s decision. “There is no end served by releasing a picture of someone who has been killed,” Hoyer said, adding that he had not seen the photo. Hoyer said there was “absolute proof” that bin Laden was dead and that “I don’t think there is any necessity to release the picture.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also said he opposes release of photos of bin Laden’s body.

But Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) issued a statement disagreeing with Obama’s decision. “It’s a mistake,” he said.

“The whole purpose of sending our soldiers into the compound, rather than an aerial bombardment, was to obtain indisputable proof of bin Laden’s death,” Graham said. “I know bin Laden is dead. But the best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world.”

He said he was “afraid the decision made today by President Obama will unnecessarily prolong this debate.”

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, also came out in opposition to Obama’s verdict. She wrote in a tweet: “Show photo as warning to others seeking America’s destruction. No pussy-footing around, no politicking, no drama; it’s part of the mission.”

In response to questions, Carney said the U.S. commandos were prepared to take bin Laden into custody if he had surrendered. “Bin Laden’s surrender would have been accepted if feasible,” he said.

Asked about concerns being raised by a top United Nations human rights official, he said the operation was “fully consistent with the laws of war.”

Carney added, “There is simply no question that this operation was lawful.” He said the U.S. force “acted in the nation’s self defense” and carried out the raid in a way to “minimize, and avoid altogether if possible, civilian casualties.”

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