WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has decided against releasing death photos of Osama bin Laden amid concerns that gruesome images could prove inflammatory, even though they could have provided tangible proof of the terrorist mastermind’s demise.
Obama revealed his decision in an interview taped for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” just a day after his CIA director, Leon Panetta, said the photos would be released.
The president decided against making the images public after a spirited debate within government over the potential impact of their release.
Ever since word of bin Laden’s death broke, the administration has tried to strike a balance between celebrating the success of the dramatic covert operation without unnecessarily offending sensitivities in the Muslim world. Officials stressed that Muslim traditions were followed before bin Laden’s body was buried at sea, for example.
There was support for releasing the photos from both ends of the spectrum: Some family members of those who died in the 9-11 terror attacks thought it important to document bin Laden’s death, as did some skeptics in the Arab world who doubted his demise in the absence of convincing evidence.
But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said in advance of Obama’s decision that he was concerned that the photographic images could be seen as a “trophy” that would inflame U.S. critics and makes it harder for members of the American military deployed overseas to do their job.
Rogers said the picture could stir up anti-U.S. fervor around the world and hamper intelligence cooperation with the United States. He said conspiracy theorists wouldn’t have likely been convinced anyhow.
The photos have been described by several sources as gruesome. One shows part of the skull blown off, those sources say.
A U.S. official said one consideration is that the photo also shows exposed brain matter.
Sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the photo is still part of a classified investigation.
The president made his decision as the Navy SEALS involved in the daring raid in Pakistan arrived in the U.S. for debriefing, and U.S. officials began to comb through the intelligence trove of computer files, flash drives, DVDs and documents that the commandos hauled out of the terrorist’s hideaway.
Bin Laden had about 500 euros sewn into his clothes when he was killed and had phone numbers on him when he was killed, U.S. officials said, a possible indication that bin Laden was ready to flee the compound on short notice.
Obama prepared to visit New York City on Thursday to lay a wreath at Ground Zero and visit with 9/11 families and first responders.
• Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.