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Why Obama Nixed the Photo Release


One thing the U.S. didn't plan for: what to do with the photos of bin Laden's body.(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama on 60 MInutes: Bin Laden Photos

It turns out they didn't plan for everything.


The operation to get Osama bin Laden was meticulously planned and carefully thought through, including the decision to bury the terrorist leader's body at sea—a move that would deny the Saudi a grave and, potentially, a shrine.

But no one in the administration seems to have decided ahead of time what should have been a pressing question: What about photos from the operation?


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Nothing compelling came forth. The arguments against were clear: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton consulted with allies in the Middle East and reported back that none thought the release of the photos would be in their interests. She and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also worried that the images would provoke anti-American violence at embassies, consulates, and military bases overseas. The Muslim world might look askance at a desecrated dead body, even if it was Osama bin Laden's.

Accounting for the morbid curiosity of human beings, there is little appetite, outside the media and some political elites, for the photos. The White House does not think that their release would bring psychological closure to the families of victims—and this fact is derived from interviews with family members. Obama has plenty of cover from congressional Republicans, many of whom have asked the White House to keep the photos secret.

One question remains to be answered: There are many things that a White House can't anticipate after events of this nature, but surely, at some point before bin Laden was killed, someone brought up the question of what to do with the photos that would be taken.

There is an argument to be made that Obama was correct to wait and see if a scenario developed where the release would advance the interests of national security. No such scenario developed.


Though the White House won't say it, not releasing the photos means that the images one associates with the death of bin Laden are those of Obama making the announcement and Obama and team waiting in the Situation Room. Not releasing the photos helps Obama own this event even more.

Obama gave an insight into his thinking in an interview for CBS News's 60 Minutes. His words, relayed by White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday, dismissed any release of photos of a dead Osama as "an incitement to violence." 

The president also put the decision in the context of American values: "That's not who we are. We don't trot this stuff out as trophies." 

Now that the decision has been made not to release the photo of a dead bin Laden, presumably recognizable but severely wounded, the administration has taken a gamble.

They've bet that the conspiracy theorists who don't believe in bin Laden's death won't be convinced anyway. In an age when everyone has photo editing software, why should they?

More importantly, the administration likely bet that the last image of bin Laden would be the most enduring: a grotesquerie, an Arab man—albeit a murderous one—felled by a Western bullet. Is that really going to enhance America abroad? No, the president decided.

Of course, this may not be the last word. The decision's been made, but any decision can be revisited. (Obama once vowed to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, too.) And it's always possible the photo could leak. It's not like we're in the old days where someone can destroy the negatives. If it's digital, it's fungible. If it's fungible, it can leak.

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