President Barack Obama is reportedly leaning against releasing gruesome photographs of al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden, for fear doing so could stir up anti-American sentiment and provoke violence throughout the Islamic world.
ABC White House Correspondent Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday that both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have urged President Obama not to release the pictures.
According to Tapper’s high level White House source, Obama is “increasingly skeptical” regarding the wisdom of releasing images showing a gaping wound in bin Laden’s forehead.
“It’s fair to say that it's a gruesome photograph,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday. “It is certainly possible that -- and this is an issue that we are taking into consideration -- is that it could be inflammatory.”
In the past 24 hours, a schism has emerged, both within the Obama administration and the U.S. national security apparatus generally, regarding the images’ release.
Strongly favoring the publication of the images is CIA director Leon Panetta, who also has been handpicked as Gates’ replacement at Defense. In an NBC interview Panetta said there is a “bottom line” to the debate over the pictures.
“You know, we got bin Laden,” he said. “And I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him.”
The ink was barely dry on bin Laden’s obituary when rumors began swirling in the Arab world suggesting he wasn’t really dead. Neither al-Qaida nor the Taliban have conceded his demise.
A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, citing a Facebook group on Monday titled “Osama bin Laden NOT DEAD,” said reports of his demise had been fabricated.
Some American conspiracy theorists appear to be fanning the flames as well. Left-leaning anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed fighting in Iraq, wrote on her Facebook page Monday: “I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you’re stupid. Just think to yourself -- they paraded Saddam’s dead sons around to prove they were dead -- why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea? This lying, murderous empire can only exist with your brainwashed consent -- just put your flags away and THINK!”
But bin Laden’s family members are speaking out, confirming that he was in the compound near Islamabad raided by U.S. Seal Team Six, and was shot and killed. There appears to be little doubt among the world’s Arab leaders that bin Laden is in fact dead.
National security expert Dr. James Jay Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, who opposes the photos’ release, says the conspiracy theorists will never accept evidence counter to their elaborate presuppositions anyway.
He tells Newsmax that the administration earned high marks for its initial handling of the bin Laden operation, but complains it’s been “total amateur hour” since then.
“You never give somebody a bullet or a match when there’s gasoline around,” Carafano tells Newsmax. “There has not been a lot of blow back on the Arab street about the death of bin Laden … who’s clamoring for this? Nobody’s clamoring for this. …I really don’t see the upside.
Potentially, you give somebody something to write about. And potentially you give somebody something to use in martyrdom.”
The power of photos to ignite the Arab street was amply demonstrated in May 2004, when images were published of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib detention facility in Iraq. The administration chose not to release even more extreme images, to avoid a backlash.
But those who favor distributing the images of bin Laden point out that terrorists showed no compunction about releasing images the May 2004 images of the beheading of U.S. civilian Nick Berg in Iraq, or the February 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl.
Carafano says conspiracy theorists will simply say the photos have been doctored. And in fact there have already been instances of fake images of bin Laden’s corpse that have surfaced in the media.
Some Republicans in the intelligence community appear to be siding with those who oppose releasing the images.
“I have to tell you I think I’m where the president is on this,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said according to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “I’m a little bit reluctant, I’ll tell you why. The conspiracy theorists are going to see the pictures and find ten reasons why they think it’s someone else.”
But Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who said he has not yet seen the images, sounded unimpressed by concerns they could be too provocative.
“They’re not ghoulish, they’re not going to scare people off, they’re not offensive,” King told reporters after a briefing Tuesday. “Nothing more than you expect with a person with a bullet in his head.”
Even American Muslims are divided over whether releasing the bin Laden death photos would be beneficial. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Ind., a Muslim, says that he has no problem with the White House releasing a gruesome image of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. Carson told TheHill.com Tuesday that bin Laden “clearly posed a threat to global security” and added the administration has “a right” to publicize the photo.
The other Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison,
D-Minn., declined to comment when asked for his reaction to the photo’s possible release.
Others weighing in on the heated debate:
• A regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Imad Hamad
, was noncommittal. “I'm fine either way," he told the Detroit Free Press. "I can understand the logic that says we want to see the body ... but it could also spark more violence."
• John Radsan,
a national security law expert, and former assistant general counsel for the CIA and now a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., told the Free Press: "I would advise against releasing the photos. It will be seen as disrespectful or intended to humiliate by some audiences, and I doubt that it will satisfy the skeptics.”
• Author and commentator Dinesh D’Souza
, the president of The King’s College in New York City, supports releasing the images. He says people understand “that killing the world’s No. 1 terrorist is not a pleasant business.” D’Souza told Newsmax Tuesday: “It is not only helpful, it is virtually indispensible to release the photos. “The reason is not so much for America, but certainly for the Muslim world, which is very prone to conspiracy theories. …There are Muslims questioning, ‘Hey, is bin Laden really dead?’ It would put that question to rest.”
• Michael Scheuer
, the former CIA bin Laden expert who once led a team assigned to hunt Bin Laden, favors releasing the images although he concedes the images could trigger a backlash on the Arab street. “There surely could be some fallout from it,” says Scheuer, “but there’s no other choice. Although I don’t think the pictures will influence many people if they’re still photographs. …You can do almost anything with Photoshop these days to create a picture that you want. You would have to have video, or something more than just simply snapshots of a man shot in the head twice.”
U.S. officials say they do have a videotape of a shrouded bin Laden being buried at sea, which could give the administration the option of releasing the videotape but not the photos.
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