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05.06.11

Photos Will Give Closure on Osama

As much more sensitive classified material flows from WikiLeaks, it's important to publicly document the death of bin Laden. Ralph Begleiter on why releasing the Osama photos would be a lesson for the world in transparency.

As much more sensitive classified material flows from WikiLeaks, it's important to publicly document the death of bin Laden. Ralph Begleiter on why releasing the Osama photos would be a lesson for the world in transparency. Plus, full coverage of bin Laden.

As a former CNN journalist who has worked extensively in the Middle East, and who used the Freedom of Information Act in 2004-5 to force public release of the photos of returning American war casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan, I can understand President Obama's decision to keep the bin Laden photos under wraps. His reasons for doing so make sense.

But like the government photographs of returning casualties, the bin Laden picture—also taken by government photographers—should—and almost surely will—become public. The Obama administration should release not only the photos of bin Laden's body, but also the photographic and video documentation of the confrontation at the al Qaeda leader's compound, and his burial at sea. The sooner it happens, the sooner the controversy over how he was treated will blow over. The internal debate in the Obama administration suggests there would be little or no damage to intelligence or military secrets. In an age when much more sensitive classified material is disseminated like wildfire by WikiLeaks, and when photos taken by U.S. servicemen and women in Iraq and Afghanistan regularly embarrass the nation, publicly documenting the death of bin Laden would be a principled and noble act for a country that preaches transparency. Although some of bin Laden's followers will surely use these documents in anger to foment further terror attacks, keeping the photos secret will not prevent that.

Skepticism among Muslims about the veracity of U.S. government pictures of bin Laden began in 2001, just two months after bin Laden released his first self-produced post-9/11 video. That first video appeared on Al Jazeera on October 7, 2001, coinciding with the start of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. Worldwide television news outlets showed the entire video, about 20 minutes long. The New York Times published a transcript of bin Laden's words, anointing them as "news." Even Fox News broadcast the bin Laden video. A couple of days later, then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned U.S. journalists to be careful showing bin Laden's tapes; he might be secretly signaling terrorist "sleeper cells" to proceed with another attack. By the end of the same week, when bin Laden issued his next tape, most U.S. media shunned it. There was no transcript in the Times. Fox News issued a press release declaring itself "America's Network" and announced it would air no more bin Laden. CNN and others aired only short snippets. Self-censorship was in full bloom among U.S. media.

Bin Laden's absence from American television persisted for two months. But in early December, 2001, the al Qaeda leader suddenly appeared on American TV again. Even Fox News showed the tape, issued by the Pentagon, complete with an official U.S. government translation. Officials in Washington distributed the tape as "smoking gun" evidence of bin Laden claiming responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and boasting about their success.

In the Arab and Muslim world, the "smoking gun" was a dud. Most believed the man on the tape was an actor, that the tape was a skillful CIA production designed to justify American military attacks and widespread restrictions against Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In issuing the video, the U.S. had shot itself in the foot with bin Laden's smoking gun.

Making public the photos of his death and burial will help many to put him—and his fictional world—to rest.

A few years later, in 2003, when the U.S. issued photographs of the dead sons of Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, many Arabs complained about the "disrespect" they showed. An edited Pentagon video of a "rescue mission" to reclaim wounded Army Private Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital was widely derided as a Hollywood production.

Later that year, when Saddam himself was captured, Arabs complained about the photos showing him unkempt and in custody. But those photos drove home around the world that Saddam's rule of Iraq was truly finished. The same message flashed when an Iraqi guard's cellphone video of Saddam's hanging was made public, not by the U.S. government.

Publishing the pictures and video documentation of bin Laden's death would be greeted skeptically today by some Arabs and Muslims. Even as they call for "evidence," many Arabs assume the U.S. government would doctor the pictures. So what's the point?

For me this week, the divide has been illustrated by my class of female students from the United Arab Emirates and the University of Delaware. It's a discussion our group has been having, both in and out of classes, all week.

One Arab student says she doesn't know if bin Laden is dead. "There is no evidence," she says. Another says, "Where are the pictures?" A third says the pictures don't matter, because the U.S. government can't be trusted not to manipulate the photos, just like the fakes that appeared on the Internet. Another Arab student rolls her eyes, questioning whether the compound itself really exists, suggesting the U.S. fabricated the whole story. American students engaged in the conversation can't believe what they're hearing; their instinctive trust in their government is as self-evident as the skepticism among the Emiratis.

The world has changed since 9/11, though not in the ways many of us predicted in 2001. Many in the Arab and Muslim world today have far greater access to information beyond their government newsfeeds than they did 10 years ago. The uprisings of the 2011 Arab Spring demonstrate that the future bin Laden preached in his tapes is fiction. Making public the photos of his death and burial will help many to put him—and his fictional world—to rest.

Just as President Obama's appearance at ground zero following bin Laden's death is meant to offer closure to the families of those killed or injured in the 9/11 attacks, publication of the video and pictures of the bin Laden raid and burial at sea will offer closure to many around the world who were bin Laden's indirect victims. They include hundreds of thousands of American troops who have fought the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and millions of others—not just Americans, and also many Arabs and Muslims—who have suffered insulting and frustrating security screening at airports and buildings worldwide. And they include millions of Arabs and Muslims who were as surprised about bin Laden as anyone else on 9/11, and who never bought into his version of the future.

Releasing the photos and video can help close a chapter of terrorism and its aftermath for millions around the world.

Ralph Begleiter was CNN’s World Affairs Correspondent from 1981-1999. He teaches journalism and political science at the University of Delaware.