WASHINGTON/ABBOTTABAD (Reuters) - President Barack Obama decided on Wednesday not to release photographs of slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s body, saying they could incite violence and be used by militants as a propaganda tool.
Attorney General Eric Holder, seeking to head off suggestions that killing bin Laden was illegal, said the U.S. commandos who raided his Pakistani hide-out on Monday had carried out a justifiable act of national self-defense.
In deciding not to make public the pictures of the corpse, Obama resisted arguments that to do so could counter skeptics who have argued there is no proof that bin Laden, who was rapidly buried at sea by U.S. forces, is dead.
“I think that given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk,” Obama told the CBS program “60 Minutes.”
“It is important for us 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. As a propaganda tool,” the president added.
“There’s no doubt that Bin Laden is dead,” Obama said. “And so we don’t think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. There are going be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again.”
Obama’s decision followed intense debate in his administration. CIA Director Leon Panetta had said on Tuesday the pictures would be released.
Washington also had to weigh sensitivities in the Muslim world over what White House spokesman Jay Carney called “a gruesome photograph.” U.S. Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte said she had seen a picture showing bin Laden’s face and believed it confirmed his identity.
Defending the killing of what the White House has acknowledged was an unarmed bin Laden, Holder said he was a legitimate military target and had made no attempt to surrender to the American forces who stormed his fortified compound near Islamabad and shot him in the head.
“It was justified as an act of national self-defense,” Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee, citing bin Laden’s admission of being involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.
It was lawful to target bin Laden because he was the enemy commander in the field and the operation was conducted in a way that was consistent with U.S. laws and values, he said, adding that it was a “kill or capture mission.”
“If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate,” he said.
U.S. acknowledgment on Tuesday that bin Laden held no weapon when shot dead had raised accusations Washington had breached international law. Exact circumstances of his death remained unclear and could yet fuel controversy, especially in the Muslim world.
Former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt called the killing “quite clearly a violation of international law.” Geoffrey Robertson, a prominent London-based human rights lawyer, said the killing “may well have been a cold-blooded assassination” that risked making bin Laden a martyr.
Husayn al-Sawaf, 25, a playwright, said in Cairo: “The Americans behaved in the same way as bin Laden: with treachery and baseness. They should’ve tried him in a court. As for his burial, that’s not Islamic. He should’ve been buried in soil.”
But there has been no sign of mass protests or violent reaction on the streets in south Asia or the Middle East.
Pakistan, for its part, faced national embarrassment, a leading Islamabad newspaper said, in explaining how the world’s most-wanted man was able to live for years in the military garrison town of Abbottabad, just north of the capital.
The Dawn newspaper compared the latest humiliation with the admission in 2004 that one of the country’s top scientists, Abdul Qadeer Khan, had sold its nuclear secrets.
Pakistan has welcomed bin Laden’s death, but its Foreign Ministry expressed deep concerns about the raid, which it called an “unauthorized unilateral action.”
The country blamed worldwide intelligence lapses for a failure to detect bin Laden, while Washington worked to establish whether its ally had sheltered the al Qaeda leader, which Islamabad vehemently denies.
“There is an intelligence failure of the whole world, not just Pakistan alone,” Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani told reporters in Paris.
An early U.S. account of the commando raid said bin Laden had taken part in a firefight with the helicopter-borne U.S. troops. Al Arabiya television suggested the architect of the 9/11 attacks was first taken prisoner and then shot.
The Arabic television station said a Pakistani security source “quoted the daughter of Osama bin Laden that the leader of al Qaeda was not killed inside his house, but had been arrested and was killed later.”
Carney on Tuesday cited the “fog of war” as a reason for the initial misinformation on whether bin Laden was armed.
He insisted that bin Laden resisted when U.S. forces stormed his compound in the 40-minute operation, but would not say how. Panetta told PBS television the strike team opened fire in response to “threatening moves” as they reached the third-floor room where they found bin Laden.
There has been little questioning of the operation in the United States, where bin Laden’s killing was greeted with street celebrations. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Tuesday showed the killing boosted Obama’s image, improving Americans’ views of his leadership and his efforts to fight terrorism.
In Pakistan, the streets around bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad remained sealed off on Wednesday, with police and soldiers allowing only residents to pass through.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban, who harbored bin Laden until they were overthrown in late 2001, challenged the truth of his death, saying Washington had not provided “acceptable evidence to back up their claim” that he had been killed.
Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Ralph Boulton and Patrick Worsnip; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Philip Barbara