With advisers, Obama rejects showing photo of bin Laden

Says picture would not sway skeptics

By Mark Landler and Mark Mazzetti
New York Times / May 5, 2011

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WASHINGTON — President Obama decided not to release graphic photographs of Osama bin Laden’s corpse after concluding that the images could incite violence against Americans and would do little to persuade skeptics that the Al Qaeda founder had been killed in the raid on his compound, the White House said yesterday.

The president’s decision came after a brief but intense debate in his war council about making the photos public, administration officials said. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that images of a bloodied bin Laden would pose a risk to national security. But the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon Panetta, said he believed the eventual release of photos was inevitable.

Even as the White House decided against providing visual evidence of bin Laden’s death, new details emerged of his final moments early Monday on the top floor of a fortified house in Pakistan, cornered by a Navy SEAL assault team.

Administration officials said for the first time that the commandos who entered the room on the third floor saw an AK-47 and a pistol within arm’s reach of the Al Qaeda leader. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because some of the details of the raid remained classified, said they could not confirm whether bin Laden tried to grab the weapons.

The new details suggested that the raid, though chaotic and bloody, was one-sided, with more than 20 Navy SEAL members quickly dispatching the handful of men protecting bin Laden.

Officials said that the only shots fired by those in the compound came at the beginning, when bin Laden’s trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, opened fire from behind the door of the guesthouse adjacent to the house where bin Laden was hiding.

This account differs from an official version of events issued by the Pentagon on Tuesday and read by the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, which said SEAL members “were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation.’’

Carney said the president expressed doubts early on about releasing the photos but consulted his senior advisers. Based on its monitoring of worldwide reaction to the announcement of bin Laden’s death, Carney said, the administration also concluded that most people viewed the reports of his death as credible and that publicizing photos would do little to sway those who believed it was a hoax.

Obama was direct in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes,’’ to be broadcast Sunday, according to a transcript released by the network.

“It is very 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.

“That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.’’

The deliberations were reminiscent of Obama’s decision in May 2009 to fight the release of photos documenting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by US military personnel. He decided he would fight making them public after his military commanders warned the images could provoke a reaction against troops in those countries.

Obama will take part in a wreath-laying ceremony today at the Sept. 11 memorial in Lower Manhattan.

Seeking to quell any legal questions about the raid, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “It was justified as an act of national self-defense,’’ citing bin Laden’s role as the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.