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Originally published May 4, 2011 at 9:57 PM | Page modified May 4, 2011 at 10:24 PM

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Risk, values shape photo debate

President Obama decided Wednesday against releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces, saying doing so could pose a security risk and would be inconsistent with American values.

Obama at Ground Zero

President Obama will travel to New York today, meeting privately with families of Osama bin Laden's victims in the 2001 attacks and laying a wreath at the site of the World Trade Center. The White House invited former President George W. Bush to appear with Obama, but he declined.

For updates, see seattletimes.com

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President Obama decided Wednesday against releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. forces, saying doing so could pose a security risk and would be inconsistent with American values.

"We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft in an interview to air Sunday on "60 Minutes." "The fact of the matter is, this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. And I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he is gone. But we don't need to spike the football."

After 48 hours of extraordinarily detailed, sometimes-inaccurate briefings on the bin Laden assassination, the president and his administration also called a halt Wednesday to releasing any more details about how the world's most famous terrorist met his end.

After seeing the photos, and based on DNA testing, Obama said he is "absolutely certain" bin Laden is dead. Conspiracy theorists would not be satisfied even if a photo was made public, he said.

White House officials said other evidence, such as Navy records of bin Laden's sea burial and records of DNA analysis and facial-recognition analysis, might be released eventually.

But Obama and his administration insisted they never would release photos or videos of bin Laden's corpse, or of the Muslim burial service conducted aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson before the body was dropped into the North Arabian Sea.

Obama told Kroft that the photo decision was discussed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as his intelligence team, "and they all agree."

CIA Director Leon Panetta, however, has been more open to releasing the photos, saying they would come out eventually.

White House spokesman Jay Carney brushed aside questions about the internal debate and Panetta's comments. "There was a discussion to be had about the pros and cons. And the president engaged in that discussion and made a decision," Carney said. "The final decision was not made until today."

Carney also defended the decision to give bin Laden a Muslim burial service at sea, suggesting that said more about Americans than about bin Laden.

"The respect that was shown to him and his body was far greater than the respect that Osama bin Laden showed to the victims on 9/11 or any of his other victims," Carney said. "That's ... who we are."

The White House had ordered an intelligence analysis to gauge whether public disclosure might rally foes of the United States and produce a backlash. Analysts found that, in previous cases where such photos were made public, "there was harm done over time," a senior White House official said.

Throughout the debate, Obama always leaned against release of the grisly pictures, the official said. In the end, "there was never any reason for him to change his mind.

"The costs outweighed the benefits," the official said. "They're photos of someone who got shot in the head. You can see it's him. It looks like Osama bin Laden. But it also looks like someone who was shot in the head."

Political reaction was mixed.

"There's ample proof that this was Osama bin Laden," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "The DNA is conclusive," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also applauded Obama's move.

"I don't want to make the job of our troops serving in places like Iraq and Afghanistan any harder than it already is," Rogers said. "The risks of release outweigh the benefits. 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.

"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," Rogers said. Osama bin Laden is not a trophy — he is dead, and let's now focus on continuing the fight until al-Qaida has been eliminated."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., though, said it was a mistake to keep the photos secret.

"The whole purpose of sending our soldiers into the compound, rather than an aerial bombardment, was to obtain indisputable proof of bin Laden's death," he said. "I'm afraid the decision made today by President Obama will unnecessarily prolong this debate."

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate, tweeted her displeasure almost as soon as the White House announcement came.

"Show photo as warning to others seeking America's destruction," Palin wrote. "No pussyfooting around, no politicking, no drama; it's part of the mission."

For an image that almost no one has seen, the photo of bin Laden's corpse has become famous.

Navy SEALs inflicted a "kill shot" that hit him in the forehead above his left eye, White House sources said. The photo or photos of his body are graphic, with blood and brain material visible, they said.

For Anthony Alfieri, director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law, the choice comes down to a classic conundrum in a democratic system.

"Members of the media could argue that there is a duty or obligation, derivative of the First Amendment, that would favor publication of a photograph because the public interest is served by a well-informed citizenry."

But a strong opposing argument also can be made.

"Such a photo is sure to be inflammatory, sure to incite some corner of the world and could provoke retributive actions against Americans abroad and Americans serving in military service," Alfieri said.

He comes down on the side of publishing the photo.

"We deserve to have access to information," he said. "Should these documents be classified? There is no compelling national-security argument for censorship or prior restraint of photos."

Anita Cava, co-director of University of Miami ethics programs, said the choice is difficult but that she can live without seeing the dead terrorist. Photos of deceased people are a delicate subject everywhere, she said.

Cava recalled the recent Quran burning at a Gainesville, Fla., church, led by the Rev. Terry Jones, which provoked a violent reaction that resulted in the deaths of U.N. workers in Afghanistan.

"We need to be mindful of how our behavior is being perceived abroad," Cava said. "The goal [of killing bin Laden] has been reached. I don't see how the photograph adds anything to that goal having been reached. It could cause more harm than good."

Sam Terilli, a professor of journalism at the University of Miami, also sees no value in publishing the images. It has become so easy to produce false images and distribute them on the Internet, he said, some people will continue to believe bin Laden is still alive.

"A gory photograph of a corpse is proof of nothing," Terilli said. "People who don't believe now, won't believe then. I don't need convincing. I never doubted that Elvis Presley or Jim Morrison died, either."

Compiled from the Tribune Washington bureau, Cox Newspapers and McClatchy Newspapers

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