05.04.11

Why Obama Won't Release Osama bin Laden's Death Photos

Grisly shots of Osama bin Laden’s corpse won’t be released, the president decided today. Daniel Stone explains the controversial judgment call—and how the “gory” images could have backfired.

The idea of releasing the photo is dead.

In his first news interview since the capture of Osama bin Laden, President Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft on Wednesday that he decided against publicly releasing any of the pictures showing the al Qaeda leader's corpse.

Photos: Notorious Leaders’ Grisly Remains

“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 in the taping for 60 Minutes. “You know, that's not who we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies. You know, 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.  But—but we don't need to spike the football.”  
 

The president said he had consulted with his national security team, including Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates.

Obama posed a hypothetical question of how Americans would react if al Qaeda members killed a U.S. soldier and published photos of his or her body.

The issue of the photos had overtaken the initial news of the raid over the past 48 hours, as questions turned to verifying that the Navy SEALs indeed killed bin Laden. As the White House sought to drive the narrative of the operation, questions arose from some members of Congress and reportedly in al Qaeda networks overseas as to whether visual evidence would be released, with the administration appearing to lose control of the message war. There were also fractures in the administration's policy on the matter. CIA Director Leon Panetta told NBC that at least one photo would "probably" be released to quell any doubters. 
 

Video screenshot

But even as some White House officials briefed reporters on a potential timing for the distribution of the images, Obama himself was cool to the idea. The prospect that the images could incite future threats or become an organizing tool for terrorists gave the president pause. There was also the danger that, in death, bin Laden’s visage would become the dominant public image of the killing, thus removing attention from the picture of a stone-faced Obama watching the raid as it happened. 
 

But Obama said his rationale had to do with American restraint. According to other excerpts released by CBS, Obama posed a hypothetical question of how Americans would react if al Qaeda members killed a U.S. soldier and published photos of his or her body. 
 

In Washington, however, a town where most widely buzzed-about information eventually becomes public, often through leaks, the photo could still find its way online. According to several members of Congress, the photo has been distributed in intelligence circles and among some members and staff on Capitol Hill. Some of them, as well as several White House officials, have described the photos as "gruesome" and "gory." The close-up images reportedly have blood and brains visible. The White House suggested that other images associated with the raid, including ones of bin Laden's burial at sea, would also remain classified. 
 

When asked about why the White House waited several days to make a definitive decision, an official referenced Obama's style of decision making, pulling in many voices and making sure he hears different opinions. 
 

Yet some voices have insisted that despite the gore or potential blowback, the photos should still see the light of day. In a widely circulated tweet, Sarah Palin accused Obama of "pussy-footing" and said releasing the photos were "part of the mission." 
 

White House spokesman Jay Carney made a moral argument, saying the United States would not stoop to the same level as bin Laden and his terrorist network. "The respect that was shown to his body was far greater than the respect he showed to Americans on 9/11," Carney said. "Because that's who we are." 

Daniel Stone is Newsweek's White House correspondent. He also covers national energy and environmental policy.