White House Weighs Releasing Bin Laden Photos

The White House has photos of Osama bin Laden from the raid that resulted in his death Sunday. The question is whether to release them. Doing so could cement the story and propel the political narrative of a U.S. victory — or it could inflame anti-U.S. sentiment and raise legal questions.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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I'm Melissa Block.

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But we begin this hour with the day's news and with two photographs: the first, a riveting shot of the White House Situation Room. It shows the president and his national security team watching the operation to capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Their faces and body language show a tense and historic moment, but there is another photograph the government has yet to release. The White House knows that if it becomes public, the image will be far more riveting and deeply controversial.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO: Osama bin Laden's death was an earthquake that shook the world. Photographs of his bloody corpse would be a powerful aftershock. President Obama's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, told NPR's MORNING EDITION today the White House is not taking this decision lightly.

Mr. JOHN BRENNAN (Deputy National Security Adviser, Homeland Security and Counterterrorism): There is not a question at this point, I think, in anybody's mind that bin Laden is dead. I know there are some people who are interested in having that visual proof. This is something we're taking into account, but what we don't want to do is to release anything that might be either misunderstood or that would cause other problems.

SHAPIRO: It's more than simply a question of visual proof. Stories, people and events can be defined by a single image. When prison guards abused inmates at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison seven years ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this to a Senate committee.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Secretary DONALD RUMSFELD (Defense Department): It is the photographs that gives one the vivid realization of what actually took place. Words don't do it.

SHAPIRO: There is a scientific basis for this reaction, says neuroscientist John Gabrieli of MIT. Humans evolved to absorb information visually.

Dr. JOHN GABRIELI (MIT): The brain responds far more powerfully to images than text. We see that in brain activations, that it's a much more potent response. And in terms, for example, memory that's formed by an experience much more powerful for pictures than words.

SHAPIRO: For 10 years, Osama bin Laden has been defined by one image: the tall skinny man with a long gray beard.

Cyma Rubin knows well how consequential a new photo of bin Laden could be. She's curator of an exhibition called "Capture the Moment: Pulitzer Prize Photographs."

Ms. CYMA RUBIN (Curator, "Capture the Moment: Pulitzer Prize Photographs"): I think the death photograph will have a tremendous impact, and I think that it will replace the other image because there is a finality to it, this closure.

SHAPIRO: There are also legal questions involved in the decision about whether or not to release the photo.

Tom Parker is policy director for Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Human Rights at Amnesty International. His organization has not taken a position on whether the photos should be released.

Mr. TOM PARKER (Policy Director, Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Human Rights, Amnesty International): The Geneva Conventions have a basic standard that you shouldn't hold up any prisoner to, basically, public curiosity.

SHAPIRO: And does this apply to prisoners living or dead?

Mr. PARKER: Well, that's the question, right? And I think that's open to debate, as things currently stand.

SHAPIRO: In 2003, the Bush administration decided that international law did not forbid releasing graphic photographs showing the corpses of Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay. It's not clear whether the Obama administration would have reached the same conclusion. Parker is reassured by the meticulous details the White House released about bin Laden's Islamic burial at sea.

Mr. PARKER: The United States government in this issue, I think, has tried to give some serious thought to handling bin Laden's remains within the appropriate legal context, and that seems clear from the information that's been released so far.

SHAPIRO: During today's White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney suggested there is also a fear that releasing the photograph could give bin Laden supporters something to rally around.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Press Secretary): It's fair to say that it's a gruesome photograph. It is certainly possible that - and this is an issue that we are taking into consideration, is that it could be inflammatory.

SHAPIRO: Carney said the president is intimately involved in this decision-making process. He said there's not some roiling debate in the White House over whether or not to release the photo, there's just some discussion about what the right choice should be.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House.

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