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Obama’s Bin Laden Photo Decision: Move on or More Proof?

May 4, 2011 at 6:34 PM EDT
Citing national security risks, President Obama said Wednesday that photos of Osama bin Laden's body will not be released. Ray Suarez discusses the president's decision and its effects with former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke and former Deputy National Security Adviser Juan Zarate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, at least, the world will not be seeing the images of Osama bin Laden in death. That word came today from President Obama.

Ray Suarez has our report.

JAY CARNEY, White House press secretary: The president has made the decision not to release any of the photographs of the deceased Osama bin Laden.

RAY SUAREZ: White House spokesman Jay Carney spoke shortly after President Obama made his intentions known in an interview with “60 Minutes” on CBS.

The spokesman read from a transcript.

JAY CARNEY: “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 or as a propaganda tool. That’s not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.

“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, and I think that, given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk.”

RAY SUAREZ: The president said there was — quote — “no doubt we killed bin Laden.” He acknowledged some would still deny it, but he said, “The fact of the matter is, you won’t see bin Laden walking on this Earth again.”

In Congress the issue of releasing the death photos had drawn divided reactions. Republican Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has seen the photos. He said they would cause trouble for American troops on the ground.

REP. MIKE ROGERS, R-Mich.: If we can’t answer for sure and for certain this doesn’t — this doesn’t — this doesn’t make the job of that soldier easier, if it makes it harder, I say it’s not worth it.

RAY SUAREZ: The Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, agreed.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, D-Calif.: I have not seen them so I don’t know. But I don’t think that the timing is such that something incendiary is the right thing to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Republican Congressman Peter King was among those arguing for making the pictures public.

REP. PETER KING, R-NY: There’s no doubt they got him. And let’s not have conspiracy theories develop. From what I have heard of the pictures, they are not ghoulish. They’re not going to scare people off. They’re not offensive.

RAY SUAREZ: But, in the end, White House Spokesman Carney said, the president consulted with his national security team, and they all agreed.

JAY CARNEY: Every member of the national security team is — is aware of and expressed the downside of releasing, which is — I think weighed heavily on the president, in terms of the potential risks it would pose to Americans serving abroad and Americans traveling abroad.

So the idea that this was 100 percent obvious — I mean, you know, that’s — the fact of the matter is, the president never gets to make a decision that’s 100 percent obvious because those kinds of decisions never get to his desk.

RAY SUAREZ: Amid the focus on the photos, more details trickled out about the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Sunday night.

It was widely reported the terror leader apparently made provisions for escaping if cornered. He had two phone numbers and 500 euros, the equivalent of more than $740, sewn into his clothes.

Back in Washington, the debate over the bin Laden death photos seemed likely to simmer on despite the president’s decision to withhold them. And it wasn’t the first time the U.S. government has made such decisions. In 2003, these images of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, were officially released after the brothers were killed by U.S. troops in Iraq.

Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the decision wasn’t a hard call.

DONALD RUMSFELD, former U.S. secretary of defense: They are now dead. We know that. The Iraqi people are — have been waiting for confirmation of that. And they, in my view, deserved having confirmation of that.

RAY SUAREZ: Other highly sensitive images have also come to light, including those of Saddam Hussein’s hanging in 2006 and the notorious pictures of U.S. troops posing with Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. They became public in 2004.

For some perspective on the complexities of these kinds of decisions we turn to Richard Clarke, former White House counterterrorism adviser in the Clinton and early George W. Bush administrations. He is now a consultant. And Juan Zarate, a deputy national security adviser in the Bush administration, he is now a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We have no need to publish to photos to establish that Osama bin Laden is dead” — the words of President Obama.

Juan Zarate, did he make the right call?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: This was a hard call, Ray. I think, for the moment, it appears to be the right decision.

I think what the administration and White House is trying to do is to keep the moral high ground on this narrative, the narrative of having brought justice to the world’s most infamous terrorist. And I think what they’re trying to do is to make sure that, not only does the White House not appear insensitive, but that America is not besmirched by gruesome images of bin Laden having been killed, and having them released, as the White House said, in — as a trophy, demonstrating the death itself.

I — I…

RAY SUAREZ: Could you have made an argument to release them?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, I think — I think you could. I think you could make an argument in this way.

First, I think we live in the WikiLeaks era. We have to realize that these images will likely see the light of day anyway, despite attempts to control them. Some pictures are already out from the actual site. Reuters has bought photographs of the two bodies left behind that are quite gruesome and are already on the Internet.

And so the narrative is already starting to be shaped by the release of images that aren’t in the U.S. government’s control. I think there’s also an assumption, ultimately, that whatever comes out publicly, the U.S. government is behind. And so, you know, I think this is a real tough call. But I think that the idea that you don’t want to incite people, you don’t want to appear insensitive is a compelling argument at this moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Clarke, how do you think it was decided?

RICHARD CLARKE, former U.S. counterterrorism official: Well, I’m going to disagree a little. I don’t think this was a close call at all.

If you ask yourself what problem are you solving by releasing these photos, then I think it answers itself. There’s a certain group of people who are never going to believe that we killed him. They will be the Elvis theorists, both in this country, but mainly in the Middle East, where conspiracy theory is a way of life in that culture.

They wouldn’t be persuaded by the pictures. And so releasing the pictures wouldn’t solve that problem. What problem would it solve? I don’t know of one. I know a problem it would create. It could push some people over the edge.

You know, right now, we’re in a period where we’re afraid of a spasm response, of a lone wolf somewhere in the United States or overseas picking up a gun and seeking revenge. And seeing those pictures might just be enough to push that guy over the side into picking up the gun and going and seeking revenge.

So, I can’t quantify that. No one can. But we know it’s a potential problem. On the other hand, releasing them doesn’t solve any problem. So I don’t think it was a close call at all.

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: The one thing I would say is the problem that I see is you have this issue still festering. I don’t think you can sort of close the book on this question, in part because, as Dick said, there’s going to be conspiracy theories out there and you’re not going to be able to quash any of those.

But there are still going to be questions in the minds of many as to what really happened and what the U.S. government may be trying to hide. And there’s all sorts of things out there where this issue will not go away. And to the extent that a photo eventually makes its way into the public, in some ways, the government then has lost control of the narrative. And I think that’s the challenge.

RAY SUAREZ: Let’s talk about that, because there are — there have been cases where things that the government doesn’t want released do eventually get out there, as we see, as Juan mentioned, with WikiLeaks.

Do you at least control the narrative if you control the release, Richard Clarke?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well you continue the narrative. You cause the narrative to go on. You contribute to the discussion.

Now, if we had released the pictures, people would then be dissecting the pictures. They would be doing measuring. They’d be finding proof that it wasn’t him. It would go on and on and on. It would feed the blogs, particularly the Islamic blogs, but also the conspiracy theorists here.

I think the government is best to say, look, he’s dead, we killed him, we know we killed him, al-Qaida knows we killed him, and just move on. And if there are those people who want to make an industry out of talking about it, who have nothing else to do, fine. Let them.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Juan, you heard Richard Clarke mention Elvis sightings. Did it seem that there even was much pushback on this story, a sizable number of people who were doubting, in fact, that Osama bin Laden was dead, and that these photos were a necessary antidote to that?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, I don’t think there’s such a weight of pressure that that drove any element of this decision.

I think Dick is right that there are always going to be conspiracy theorists out there, and that shouldn’t necessarily drive your decision-making. And I also agree you don’t want to create the mythology of a martyr here with bin Laden.

And I think images have a way of doing that. I just worry that the images are going to get out anyway. And perhaps one way of handling this is to control the types of image, the way it gets out.

The White House is torn on this, though, because, in many ways, the messaging is coming out of the White House. The images that came out, for example, in the Iraqi context were often done either by Cabinet officials or in the field. You recall the Zarqawi pictures that were done actually in Iraq, released in Iraq.

And in part that was because the message was important to the Iraqis, as well as to the United States. And so I agree there hasn’t been necessarily enough of a groundswell to say that there was a ton of pressure on the White House to make this decision.

But I just don’t think it’s going to go away, necessarily. And at some point the image is going to get out.

RAY SUAREZ: I would like to hear from both of you about how these decisions are made. You have both been on the inside when things of this nature have been the subject of the day. How do you weigh the upsides and downsides behind closed doors?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, the president did talk directly to the secretary of state and the secretary of defense and the CIA director on this one.

But I think he had his mind made up. I think he has been thinking about this for a while. And essentially I think he made the right call. You could — if you released the pictures of the dead body, then they would want the pictures of the funeral aboard the carrier. Then Islamic scholars would be arguing about were the procedures followed properly during the funeral? And it would go on and on and on.

RAY SUAREZ: But are those the kinds of upsides and downsides that are weighed in a case like this?

RICHARD CLARKE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the conversation in the Situation Room would be just like the conversation we’re having here.

And, at the end of the day, the president’s the man who makes the call. And I think it offended him. It offended his sensibilities. He’s a father of two young girls. He didn’t want them seeing the picture. And he didn’t want anybody else having their kids see the pictures.

And I think he wanted to draw a line, a distinction between us and the terrorists. The terrorists show pictures of beheadings that — they kidnap people. They kill them. And they put the pictures of the killing on the Internet. He wanted to say, we’re not like that.

RAY SUAREZ: So, there’s not only an effect of the photo itself out there, but a reputational effect for the United States that has to be weighed here?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Absolutely.

And I think that was a driving principle here. Again, I think part of the narrative is being on the moral high ground. We took and found justice against a butcher of thousands around the world, the Muslim civilians, as well as Americans.

And so I think the calculus was really, how do you keep control of that moral high ground? And I agree with Dick. I think one of the advantages we have is, perhaps, over time, if the images come out later, passions and emotions will be diminished, and, frankly, the reality that bin Laden isn’t popping up in messaging or in other ways starts to prove the point without the images. But I just worry, in this era, that it’s very difficult to control the messaging.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

RICHARD CLARKE: Thank you.

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Thank you, Ray.