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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bin Laden Photos Probably Less Consequential Than Most Believe

Bin LadenIf the White House decision not to release photos of Osama bin Laden's body splits pundits, talking heads, and other media types, there isn't a lot of controversy among the general public. An NBC poll finds a solid majority -- 64% -- agreeing with the decision. Of that percentage, 52% reportedly "strongly" agree. And with even al Qaeda admitting that bin Laden is dead, it's difficult to see what purpose the photos would serve.

Still, the Associated Press is on the case:

The Atlantic:

President Obama's decision to withhold the visual evidence of Osama bin Laden's death has created a fundamental disagreement between the White House and one of the largest journalism organizations in the world. "This information is important for the historical record," said Michael Oreskes, senior managing editor at The Associated Press. "That's our view."


Last Monday, the AP filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the photographic and video evidence taken during the raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The organization's FOIA request included a reminder of the president's campaign pledge and a plea to be more transparent than his predecessor. "The Obama White House 'pledged to be the most transparent government in U.S. history," wrote the AP, "and to comply much more closely with the Freedom of Information Act than the Bush administration did.'"

"It's our job as journalists to seek this material... We're not deciding in advance to publish this material," said Oreskes. "We would like our journalists, who are working very hard, to see this material and then we'll decide what's publishable and what's not publishable based on the possibly that it's inflammatory."

While some believe that the keeping the photos under wraps is a matter of national security -- denying bin Laden followers and sympathizers a "martyr photo" to wave around like a bloody shirt -- the president himself put the argument in terms of decency and security.

"It is important 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 or as a propaganda tool," the president told 60 Minutes' Steve Croft. "We don't trot out this stuff as trophies. The fact of the matter is, this is somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received."

For the record, I'm with the NBC poll's majority here. I am persuadable -- I wouldn't put myself among the "strongly" agreeing -- but the arguments against release seem more compelling. I'm not going to begrudge the AP's pursuit of their perceived legal rights (especially since I believe the dangers of their release are most likely overstated) but there's also a more common sense argument to the contrary; if something's working, don't pick at it.

Juan Cole:

While Usamah Bin Laden's passing will not destroy al-Qaeda altogether, it is a horrible blow to their morale, despite the bravado in al-Qaeda's message acknowledging Bin Laden's death at American hands.

(By the way, for those who insisted that President Obama had to release the photos of Bin Laden's corpse for the reality of his death to be accepted: well, not so much.)

Some have suggested that the Taliban may sever their ties with al-Qaeda in the wake of the latter's clear vulnerability and leadership vacuum.

If the Taliban swears off al Qaeda, then withdrawing from Afghanistan becomes much, much more likely and much, much easier to defend to the "war forever!" crowd. After all, it was the Taliban's ties to the terrorist organization that got this whole thing started in the first place. If this is a serious possibility, then maybe we shouldn't change the game board too much.

On the other hand, there is the question of rights. The security argument seems to be a weak one in this case, with the term "national security" being nothing more than a synonym for "good foreign policy." We've given up way too many rights since 9/11 to let that go lightly. If AP wants to fight a First Amendment press freedom fight, then more power to them.

I guess in the end I'm still going with the administration on this one, but wouldn't lose a lot of sleep if they lost their case in court. If Cole is right and al Qaeda is demoralized by bin Laden's death, then release of the photos wouldn't do much to change that. In fact, it may just serve as a reminder of the blow.


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