The White House warned Tuesday that a photo taken of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse was “gruesome” and expressed concern it could be inflammatory if released to prove the Al-Qaeda mastermind’s death.
But CIA Director Leon Panetta appeared to suggest in an interview that the photo would in fact be released, though later said any such decision was down to the White House. “It is fair to say it is a gruesome photograph … it could be inflammatory,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
“We are reviewing the situation. We are going about this in a methodical way and trying to make the best call,” he said, adding President Barack Obama was intimately involved in the discussions.
Panetta inadvertently stirred the controversy in an interview with NBC Nightly News.
“The bottom line is that, you know, we got bin Laden and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him,” Panetta said.
Later, he told AFP after briefing lawmakers about the bin Laden raid, that the decision on releasing the photo was coming “from the White House.”
Obama will be aware that the publication of a picture of a dead bin Laden would lay to rest any conspiracy theories in the wider world that Washington somehow faked his killing.
But officials will also be conscious of the potential of stirring a backlash — possibly against US missions abroad, or other targets — in the Muslim world from any picture deemed disrespectful to the dead or disfigured.
Another official said the bin Laden was shot above the eye in the raid on a Pakistani compound on Sunday, raising the prospect that any photo released to the public might offer graphic testimony of his death.
US enemies are already beginning to cast doubt on Washington’s word, questioning bin Laden’s death for propaganda purposes.
The Afghan Taliban said it was “premature” to comment.
“Since the Americans have not provided convincing documents to prove their claim, and sources close to Sheikh Osama Bin Laden have not confirmed or denied the reports about his martyrdom yet… (we) see it as premature to issue a statement in this regard,” the Taliban said in a statement on their website.
One option may be for the White House to release a picture of the Al-Qaeda terror mastermind at the time of his burial at sea on the aircraft carrier USS Vinson on the Indian Ocean.
Officials said that bin Laden’s body was washed and he was accorded full Islamic rites before being slipped into the Arabian Sea.
US government figures said the burial at sea was motivated partly out of a desire to avoid any land-based grave site becoming a shrine to a man some supporters now consider a martyr.
Panetta briefed lawmakers on Capitol Hill on the operation, but did not show photographs of bin Laden’s corpse.
Senate Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid said he believed the debate over releasing the photos was “morbid,” adding: “I’m not one that’s going to be yelling to make the photo public.”