President Obama has told CBS News that he’s decided against making public a graphic image of Osama bin Laden’s corpse. The news comes amid rampant speculation over the release of the image, fueled in part by comments from CIA Director Leon Panetta on Tuesday that suggested its release was inevitable.
After Matt Drudge erroneously reported that the release of the photo was imminent, the White House pushed back hard, denying that any decision had been made. “There is no update on the decision to release the photos,” e-mailed spokesman Tommy Vietor. “I have no idea what the Drudge thing is based on.”
Panetta then told NBC News that the photo was bound to come out eventually. “The government obviously has been talking about how best to do this, but I don’t think there’s — there was any question that ultimately a photograph would be presented to the public,” he said. “The bottom line is that, you know, we got bin Laden, 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.”
A desire for catharsis, or perhaps just gruesome curiosity, has further stirred the photo frenzy. But in an interview with 60 Minutes that was recorded on Wednesday, Obama said the image was not going to be released. White House press secretary Jay Carney, who shared Obama’s comments at Wednesday’s press briefing, told reporters that the decision had not been finalized until the morning of the interview.
According to Carney, Obama reasoned that the photo might cause “incitement to additional violence” or become fodder for martyrdom among those already outraged by bin Laden’s death. But Obama also made the case that, if released, the image would be an unnecessary war trophy that changes neither the implications of bin Laden’s death nor the widespread conspiracy theories about the conditions under which it took place. “We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies,” Obama said. “There are going to be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again.”
Not releasing the image will surely agitate conspiracy mongers like talk-radio hyperventilator Alex Jones, but evidence, photographic or otherwise, has never been much of an obstacle for Jones’ black-helicopter fantasies. “Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway, and there is a real risk that releasing the photos will only serve to inflame public opinion in the Middle East,” Republican House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers said on Wednesday.
A number of members of Congress have seen the photo and made their arguments for or against its release. But Obama’s decision not to make it public — and his explanation — is the only one that really counts. Of course, his decision won’t stop the flood of Freedom of Information Act requests and legal challenges to the photo’s classified status that are likely to inundate the White House in the coming weeks and months. For catharsis or curiosity, the desire to know is unlikely to abate after a single 60 Minutes interview.