At one point on Tuesday, release of the photos appeared to be imminent. In an interview with NBC News, CIA Director Leon Panetta suggested the "death" photos might be available in a matter of hours. But other members of the Obama national security team, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have argued against releasing the images, fearing they would inflame the Muslim world and raise the danger faced by U.S. military personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
From what we're told, the photos are gruesome. The Al Qaida leader took at least one bullet to the head, which blew away much of his skull. Images taken by the SEAL team capture those wounds in full detail, leaving no doubt about bin Laden's fate. Less-graphic photos were reportedly taken aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, before the terrorist mastermind was given an Islamic funeral and his body was buried at sea. At this point it's unclear if any images will ever be released.
At first blush, we believed release of the photos was essential, proving bin Laden's demise, once and for all. But we're also aware that many in the Muslim world will never believe that OBL was killed by the infidels. Any image provided by the U.S. government will be denounced as a fake, so we're not sure how many bin Laden sympathizers would be convinced by photographic proof, or any other evidence that might be offered.
As for "offending" the Islamic world, that is a concern, but it shouldn't be an over-arching factor in deciding against releasing the photos. As The Talkmaster mused this morning, how many Muslims were publicly upset over the videotaped beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl? Or the pictures of men and women leaping to their deaths from the towers of the World Trade Center on 9-11? As we recall, those horrifying images sparked celebrations in places like the West Bank and Gaza, the same places where bin Laden has been publicly mourned in recent days?
To their credit, Congressional Republicans aren't pushing the President to release the photos. House Speaker John Boehner told the National Journal that he "doesn't need to see" the images, after a phone conversation with Mr. Obama on Sunday evening, shortly after the raid ended. "He walked me through the steps that were taken and I have no doubts," Boehner said.
Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, offered the best rationale for not releasing the photos. Appearing on "Fox and Friends" this morning, Mr. Rogers suggested withholding the images--if their disclosure would increase the risk faced by our military personnel. We certainly concur with that sentiment.
Unfortunately, plans to withhold the photos may be overcome by events--and technology. Various members of Congress have already seen the images, including Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte. According to Senator Ayotte, the photograph was shown to her by another member of the Senate. That suggests that a number of copies are already in circulation, and it's just a matter of time before one is leaked to a news organization. Given that reality, the White House will probably have to release at least one bin Laden death photo, despite the risk to our troops in the field.
ADDENDUM: It was subsequently revealed that the photos viewed by Senators Brown and Ayotte were fakes. Just the first in a flood of doctored photos othat will make the rounds in the weeks, months, and years that follow.