“A National Security Risk”

The New York Times just reported that Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have convinced Obama that releasing pictures of Bin Laden’s mutilated body would pose a national security risk.

“There is no doubt that we killed Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” according to a transcript read to reporters by Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “We don’t need to spike the football.”

I don’t for a moment believe that Osama bin Laden wasn’t killed on Sunday. Nor do I believe that there could be any evidence–even an apparition of his ghost, Hamlet-style–that would satisfy the kind of people who need to believe that he’s still alive, or who reflexively assume the worst of the US government. But good Lord. If I wanted to create a conspiracy theory in a petri dish, I would be doing pretty much what Obama and his people have been doing since Monday morning. First I would rush onto TV with a bunch of improbable stories that I’d have to roll back later. Then I’d drop hints that I’m going to release pictures and not release them. How could pictures pose remotely the sort of security risk that killing Bin Laden entailed?

I got a call from Russia Today TV this afternoon and they asked me what I thought was going on. I repeated what I said in this space yesterday–that I find the whole thing baffling, especially after the weekend that Obama just had. Friday he released the birth certificate, belatedly conceding that conspiracy theories do matter but finally putting that particular one to rest. Saturday he eviscerated Donald Trump while wearing a tuxedo and a smile and Sunday he announced that he’d taken out the most hated man in the world. And then Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, he couldn’t stop tripping over his feet. Our Skype connection was pretty unstable; they only used a second of the interview, but you can watch their package here if you’re interested.

They aced the operation, but the subsequent messaging has been really uneven, to say the very least. I suspect that what we’re seeing is the result of a lack of consensus within the White House team on what the message actually is. One group–let’s call them the grownups–thinks that we should be bending over backwards to show our Muslim allies that we’re respectful, that we’re not gloating over or desecrating the body of a man that some regard as a religious leader. Another group–the political guys–figured that what happened wasn’t dramatic enough, that it needed the kind of artful, morally-telling touches that you’d see on TV, like Osama shielding himself with his young wife’s body before dying in a firefight, instead of simply having his head blown off when soldiers burst into the room where he was hiding. When the grownups rushed in to undo the damage that the political guys were causing, they planted the germ of cognitive dissonance that conspiracy theories grow out of.

Let me make myself clear: It’s not a conspiracy or a coverup that we’ve been watching unfold–if they’d all put their heads together and agreed to tell one story, then that would be the only story we’d be hearing. The fact that they’re falling all over themselves tells you that what we’re seeing is the real thing–not exactly the fog of war, but its foggy, awkward, puzzling aftermath.

But here’s the thing: You can’t blow someone away and at the same time satisfy his followers that you respect their religious customs; you can’t spill blood and keep your hands clean. I think that pictures of the dead Osama bin Laden will be out there very soon because that’s what happens, but since they’ll have been leaked, they won’t have any more credibility than the photo-shopped ones that were making the rounds yesterday.

And the conspiracy theories are already taking root–Russia Today wouldn’t have called me if they weren’t.

7 thoughts on ““A National Security Risk”

  1. They probably should release the pictures — but I would wait 6-12 months before doing so. In general, I do not trust government bureaucrats and career politicians to make ANY decisions concerning release of documents or photos.

    For 32 years I have made FOIA requests to various agencies — and particularly to the FBI. I now have over 600,000 pages of documents.

    The single most important thing I have discovered during these past three decades is that government bureaucrats and career politicians can NEVER be trusted to decide what should or should not be released. NEVER!

    Government agencies routinely redact benign information or they seek to prevent release of embarrassing data — while using the most lame or disingenuous excuses for doing so.

    For example: I often receive 2 or 3 copies of the exact same document because copies are placed in multiple files as cross-references to other subjects. The redactions almost always are different on each copy of the same document!

    I can remember, for example, one instance when I received 3 copies of the same FBI memo. On two of the three copies, the FBI redacted the name of a company where a person was employed. The employee’s name was redacted — and, obviously, his/her name could never be determined by identifying his or her employer. The third time I received the memo, the employer name was NOT redacted. It added nothing whatsoever to my knowledge — but just illustrates how arbitrary redactions are — even when there is no legitimate basis for excising a name. Sometimes even the date of a memo is redacted — for absolutely no reason.

    In short — government can NEVER be trusted to make appropriate decisions about what to release.

  2. I think I understand both sides of the argument and if they did release the pictures, I sincerely doubt I’d even look at them.

    But in a world of Wikileaks, what possible benefit can there be in trying to suppress them? I think it was Obama himself who once said that “transparency promotes accountability.” This was a big, high stakes operation, with an enormous up side, but also a tremendous potential down side. It would be nice if bad guys died as antiseptically as they do on television, not leaving any mess or moral ambiguity behind for someone else to clean up, but that’s not the world we leave in.

  3. Of course you have no doubt Osama was killed – that’s good presemptive evidence that the truth is another story.

    DNA evidence? Where’d the prior sample come from? And it takes 3-4 days to run a sample. And that’s when it’s a negative – it takes longer to do a positive. How so fast?

    They “had to bury him within twenty four hours because of Muslim religious law”? That sinks to the level of “statistics’.

    No body, no pictures, no proof… just BO’s say so. Well, that’s proof enough for Artie!

  4. I don’t think it really matters very much whether the photographs are released or not. When I was back in sixth-form college (UK’s version of high school) my history teacher ran an exra-curricular course on the JFK assassination in which he pushed a conspiracy theory that Oswald was simply a fall guy. Exhibit A was the famous “backyard” photo of Oswald holding the Manlicher-Carcano rifle that was deemed the murder weapon and carrying the pistol that was used to kill Officer Tippit. About as damning a piece of evidence that you could find. Yet our history teacher urged us to look really closely at the photograph. Did we see anything wrong with the picture? I looked and looked and couldn’t see what was wrong with it. Nobody else in the classroom could either so our history teacher had to reveal the “obvious” fact that the shadows were all wrong proving that it was a fake picture and suggesting there was a big cover-up. Most of us said something like, “Ohhhhh yes…?” without much conviction. I didn’t know then that that was only one of three photographs or that Oswald’s wife has always insisted that she took the pictures. Since then there have been independent researchers who have confirmed the authenticity of the pictures as well.

    The same would be true of the bin Laden conspiracies. Photographs would be disputed, “He looks too fat to be bin Laden.” “They could have been taken years ago.” “They’re just photoshopped” etc…

    These videos that were found in Osama bin Laden’s compound are easily as good as any picture of Osama bin Laden dead. They are indisputably him (indisputable that is to non-conspiracy theorists) and go some way to explaining the various changes of appearance we’ve seen of him. His beard is, in fact, completely grey but dyed black for his official announcements.

    1. You’re right on both counts–that the evidence, even without a public release of photographs, is probative, and that the conspiratorially-inclined will adduce conspiracies from it regardless. It makes me crazy (as so many other things do as well) but the world spins on regardless.

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