President Barack Obama has decided not to release photographs of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden's body, the White House said Wednesday.
The announcement came after a senior administration official told NBC News of the decision not to release post-mortem photos and Obama revealed the decision during an interview Wednesday with CBS' "60 Minutes."
The White House had been weighing the release of a photo, in part to offer proof that bin Laden was killed during a raid on his compound early Monday. However, officials had cautioned that the photo was gruesome and could prove inflammatory.
"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 or as a propaganda tool. That's not who we are. We don’t trot out this stuff as trophies," Obama told CBS News, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney.
"We don't need to spike the football. And I think that, given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk," the president said, according to Carney's account.
Asked about his response to some people in Pakistan saying the United States was lying about having killed bin Laden, Obama said: "The truth is that we were monitoring worldwide reaction. There is no doubt that bin Laden is dead.
"Certainly there is no doubt among al-Qaida members that he is dead. And so we don't think that a photograph in and of itself will make a difference. There are going to be folks who will deny it."
Carney said there would not be images released of bin Laden's burial at sea, either.
The president decided against making the images public after a spirited debate within government over the potential impact of their release.
Ever since word of bin Laden's death broke, the administration has tried to strike a balance between celebrating the success of the dramatic covert operation without unnecessarily offending sensitivities in the Muslim world. Officials stressed that Muslim traditions were followed before bin Laden's body was buried at sea, for example.
There was support for releasing the photos from both ends of the spectrum: Some family members of those who died in the 9-11 terror attacks thought it important to document bin Laden's death, as did some skeptics in the Arab world who doubted his demise in the absence of convincing evidence.
But the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican, said in advance of Obama's decision that he was concerned that the photographic images could be seen as a "trophy" that would inflame U.S. critics and makes it harder for members of the American military deployed overseas to do their job.
"Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway," Rogers told CBS News, "and there is a real risk that releasing the photos will only serve to inflame public opinion in the Middle East."
Democratic House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said "there is no end served by releasing a picture of someone who has been killed. I think there is absolute proof that Osama bin Laden was in fact the person that was taken into custody... killed in the firefight."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Wednesday that not releasing the photos is "a mistake" and will only prolong the debate over whether bin Laden is dead.
"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," Graham said. "I know bin Laden is dead. But the best way to protect and defend our interests overseas is to prove that fact to the rest of the world."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., backed Obama's decision, NBC News reported.
"I agree with President Obama that if there's a choice between protecting the security of our military and intelligence personnel and disproving conspiracy theories, it's an easy call," Reid said in a prepared statement. "The evidence collected leaves no doubt that Osama bin Laden is dead."
The photos have been described by several sources as gruesome. One shows part of the skull blown off, those sources say. A U.S. official said one consideration is that the photo also shows exposed brain matter.
Sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the photo is still part of a classified investigation.
The president made his decision as the Navy SEALS involved in the daring raid in Pakistan arrived in the U.S. for debriefing, and U.S. officials began to comb through the intelligence trove of computer files, flash drives, DVDs and documents that the commandos hauled out of the terrorist's hideaway.
Bin Laden had about 500 euros sewn into his clothes when he was killed and had phone numbers on him when he was killed, U.S. officials said, a possible indication that bin Laden was ready to flee the compound on short notice.
The decision comes a day after CIA director Leon Panetta said that a photo proving the death of bin Laden "would be presented to the public," but the comment quickly drew a response from the White House saying no decision has yet been made.
"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 in an interview with Nightly News.
Panetta said the photos leave no question that bin Laden was killed. "Obviously I've seen those photographs," he said. "We've analyzed them and there's no question that it's bin Laden."
In July 2003, the U.S. took heat but also quieted most conspiracy theorists by releasing graphic photos of the corpses of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's two powerful sons to prove American forces had killed them.
So far, the U.S. has cited evidence that satisfied the Navy SEAL force, and at least most of the world, that they had the right man in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The helicopter-borne raiding squad that swarmed the luxury compound identified bin Laden by appearance. A woman in the compound who was identified as his wife was said to have called out bin Laden's name in the melee.
Officials produced a quick DNA match from his remains that they said established bin Laden's identity, even absent the other techniques, with 99.9 percent certainty. U.S. officials also said bin Laden was identified through photo comparisons and other methods.