By Sam Youngman and Molly K. Hooper - 05/05/11 11:39 AM EDT
President Obama decided Wednesday against publicly releasing photos of slain terrorist Osama bin Laden, suggesting in an interview that doing so would be beneath the nation.
“That’s not who we are,” Obama said in an interview with “60 Minutes,” set to air Sunday. “We don’t trot out trophies.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly opposed releasing the photos, while CIA Director Leon Panetta, who Obama has nominated to replace Gates, favored releasing the photos in a Tuesday interview.
In deciding the photos would be kept classified, Obama sided with those arguing that their release would do more harm than good by endangering U.S. troops, and against those who said they would offer substantive proof to the world of bin Laden’s death.
Releasing the photos would amount to an unnecessary celebration, Obama suggested in excerpts of the “60 Minutes” interview read at the White House daily briefing by spokesman Jay Carney.
“We don’t need to spike the football,” Obama said. Releasing photos of the man behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, who was shot through the eye during the raid on his compound, “is not who we are.”
It was his responsibility to ensure the photos are not “floating around” as an incitement for violence or as a propaganda tool for terrorists, said Obama, who emphasized that there was no doubt that bin Laden was dead.
“It was him,” Obama said of the man in the photos, which the White House has described as “gruesome.”
“The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this Earth again,” said Obama, and releasing the photos would not satisfy those who refuse to believe it.
Carney did not comment Wednesday on where members of the Cabinet stood, but said a majority of the president’s national security team agreed the photos should not be released.
The decision divided Capitol Hill, with key Republicans including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who has seen the photos, according to his staff, arguing they should not be released.
“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 in a statement.
“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. Osama bin Laden is not a trophy — he is dead and let’s now focus on continuing the fight until al Qaeda has been eliminated,” he said.
While he opposes the photos' public release, Rogers said he has asked that everyone on the intelligence panel be allowed to view them — something he expects will happen Thursday.
"I have requested that the rest of my committee — and I understand today they'll honor that — will see these photos," he told MSNBC on Wednesday evening. "I just think that's the appropriate way to do it, and so that we can get on with it and realize that we have a whole bit of network of al Qaeda still to get after here."
The request comes after several lawmakers admitted to being fooled by fake photos, which have circulated widely on the Internet. Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) both admitted confusion over the authenticity of the photos they had been shown.
He told MSNBC he thinks any lawmaker should be allowed to see them.
"I would let members who wanted to come in and see the photo to do that," he said.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) supports the president's decision, a spokesman said, as does Homeland Security Committee Chairman Pete King (R-N.Y.), who earlier had said releasing the photo could be a good way to stop conspiracy theories in their tracks.
Others felt just as strongly that the photos should have been released.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), a frequent critic of Obama, called it an example of “pussy-footing around.”
In a message on Twitter, Palin said the photo should be shown as a “warning to others seeking America’s destruction.”
Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), an Iraq war veteran, told The Hill he favors releasing the images of bin Laden’s corpse to prove to skeptics in the Middle East that the terrorist is dead.
“In that part of the world, DNA tests don’t mean anything,” West said in a brief interview. “The president should have done that Sunday or Monday.”
It was unclear Wednesday how many lawmakers have seen the photos of bin Laden.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) told several Boston-area media outlets that he saw the photos to make the case that they should not be released to the public.
Later, Brown’s office told media outlets that what he and many others had seen was “not authentic.”
Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also backtracked after initially saying they had seen photos of bin Laden’s corpse.
Carney said he was not aware of any photos being distributed, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told NBC’s First Read website that no senators have seen the photos.
Some lawmakers on the House Intelligence committee said they hadn’t seen the photos but wanted to.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) said that he wants to see the photo so that he can verify the terror mastermind was, in fact, killed.
“I would like to be able to tell my constituents, whether they release it or not — I’d like for the Intel committee to be able to see it so I can tell my constituents that I’ve seen it,” Conaway explained.
Obama is scheduled to visit Ground Zero in New York City on Thursday and meet privately with the families of the 9/11 victims. The White House has not ruled out the possibility of showing the bin Laden photos to the 9/11 families.
The controversy over whether to release the photos, coupled with the administration’s changing story on exactly what happened during the raid on bin Laden’s compound, have threatened to overshadow the administration’s storyline of a competent mission launched by a decisive president.
Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University, said the decision on the photos should have been made quickly.
“The indecisiveness is undermining the credibility the administration earned with this successful mission,” she said. “On the substance of the decision, they needed to simply say ‘no,’ say it early and say it often.”
—Michael O'Brien contributed.