WASHINGTON - President Obama decided not to release graphic photographs of Osama bin Laden's corpse after concluding that the images could incite violence against Americans and would do little to persuade skeptics that the Al-Qaida founder had been killed in the raid on his compound, the White House said Wednesday.
The president's decision came after a brief but intense debate in his war council about the pros and cons of making the photos public, administration officials said. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that images of a bloodied Bin Laden would pose a risk to national security. But CIA Director Leon Panetta said he believed the eventual release of photos was inevitable.
Even as the White House decided against providing visual evidence of Bin Laden's death, new details emerged of his final moments early Monday, cornered in a fortified house in Pakistan by a Navy SEAL assault team. Administration officials said for the first time that the commandos who entered the third-floor room saw an AK-47 and a pistol within arm's reach of the Al-Qaida leader and that they suspected that he might be wearing a suicide vest.
The new details suggested that the raid, though chaotic and bloody, was extremely one-sided, with a force of more than 20 Navy SEAL members quickly dispatching the handful of men protecting Bin Laden.
Administration officials said that the only shots fired by those in the compound came at the beginning of the operation, when Bin Laden's trusted courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, opened fire from behind the door of the guesthouse adjacent to the house where Bin Laden was hiding. After the SEALs killed Al-Kuwaiti and a woman in the guesthouse, the Americans were never fired upon again.
This account differs from an official version of events issued by the Pentagon on Tuesday, and read by White House spokesman Jay Carney, which said the SEAL members "were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation."
When the firefight was over and Bin Laden was dead, the Americans found a trove of information: about 100 thumb drives, DVDs and computer disks, along with 10 computer hard drives and five computers.
The officials said the first goal was to sift through the data to determine whether it contained information about terror plots in the works, or about the whereabouts of other top Al-Qaida operatives. After that, they said, analysts will try to build a picture about Bin Laden's support network and look for evidence that Pakistani officials might have facilitated his years in hiding.
The White House declined to release any additional details about the operation, saying that further information would jeopardize the military's ability to conduct future clandestine operations. "We've revealed a lot of information; we've been as forthcoming with facts as we can be," Carney said.
He said the president expressed doubts early on about releasing the photos but consulted his senior advisers. All of them, Carney said, voiced concerns about the risks. Based on its monitoring of worldwide reaction to the announcement of Bin Laden's death, Carney said, the administration also concluded that most people viewed the reports of his death as credible and that publicizing photos would do little to sway those who believed it was a hoax.
Obama was direct in an interview with the CBS News program "60 Minutes," to be broadcast Sunday, according to a transcript released by the network. "It is very 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 -- as a propaganda tool."
"That's not who we are," he added. "You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies.
"Certainly there's no doubt among Al-Qaida members that he is dead," Obama said. "And so we don't think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. 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."
The deliberations were reminiscent of Obama's decision in May 2009 to fight the release of photos documenting the abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. military personnel.
On Capitol Hill, opinions were divided. "The whole purpose of sending our troops into the compound, rather than an aerial bombardment, was to obtain indisputable evidence of Bin Laden's death," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "The best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world."
But Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said, "Imagine how the American people would react if Al-Qaida killed one of our troops or military leaders, and put photos of the body on the Internet."
Analysts said Obama's decision might not prevent the images from circulating. "In the era of WikiLeaks, somebody's going to leak it," said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress.