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Obama decides against releasing Osama bin Laden death photo

The president says making public pictures of Osama bin Laden's body would pose security risks and would be counter to American values. 'We don't need to spike the football,' Obama says.

May 04, 2011|By Michael A. Memoli and Peter Nicholas, Los Angeles Times
  • Media members and onlookers gather outside the Abbottabad hideout of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Media members and onlookers gather outside the Abbottabad hideout of Al… (Aamir Qureshi / AFP / Getty…)

Reporting from Washington — President Obama decided against releasing pictures of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces because doing so could pose a security risk and would be inconsistent with American values.

"We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," he told CBS' Steve Kroft during a "60 Minutes" interview. "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 is gone.

"But we don't need to spike the football," the president added.

Photos: The death of Osama bin Laden

After 48 hours of extraordinarily detailed briefings on the death of Bin Laden that sometimes were inaccurate, the president and his administration called a halt Wednesday to releasing any more information. The White House refused to provide the photograph that many had been clamoring for, and also put a stop to issuing more details about how the world's most infamous terrorist met his end.

A senior military officer, however, said at least one gun was found in the room where Bin Laden was shot. He would not say what type. Bin Laden did not move for the weapon when he was shot, but he did not give any indication he would surrender, the officer said.

Obama said that, after seeing the photos and DNA results, he is "absolutely certain" Bin Laden is dead. Conspiracy theorists would not be satisfied even if a photo was released to the public, he concluded.

There was internal disagreement about whether to release the pictures, but the president's most senior Cabinet members concurred that it was best to keep the photos secret because they were too inflammatory, a senior White House official said Wednesday.

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, however, has appeared more open to releasing photos, saying in interviews they would come out eventually.

The White House had ordered an analysis to gauge whether public disclosure might rally opponents of the U.S. and produce a backlash. Experts studied the historical record and found that, in previous cases where such photos were made public, "there was harm done over time," the official said.

Throughout the debate, Obama always leaned against release of the grisly pictures, the official said. In the end, "there was never any reason for him to change his mind."

"The costs outweighed the benefits," the official said.

"They're photos of someone who got shot in the head. You can see it's him. It looks like Osama bin Laden. But it also looks like someone who was shot in the head," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called the president's decision "a mistake." He said that the purpose of a raid instead of a bombardment of Bin Laden's compound was to "obtain indisputable proof," and the "best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world."

"I'm afraid the decision made today by President Obama will unnecessarily prolong this debate," he said.

With the Bin Laden death photo remaining under wraps, the iconic picture of the moment will remain the one taken by White House photographer Pete Souza of Obama and his top advisors in the White House Situation Room.

Panetta said that the president and his top advisors were not looking at a live video stream from the ground of the Bin Laden operation, as many people assumed.

"There was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we really didn't know just exactly what was going on," he told PBS.

Photos: The death of Osama bin Laden

But the administration was reluctant to be more specific because doing so might unmask the specific capability that allowed the president to keep track of the mission in real time, the administration official said.

michael.memoli@latimes.com

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

David S. Cloud in The Times Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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