President Barack Obama ordered grisly photographs of Osama bin Laden in death sealed from public view on Wednesday, declaring, “We don’t need to spike the football” in triumph after this week’s daring middle-of-the-night raid. The terrorist leader was killed by American commandos who burst into his room and feared he was reaching for a nearby weapon, U.S. officials said.
Several weapons were found in the room where the terror chief died, including AK-47 assault rifles and side arms, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity as they offered the most recent in a series of increasingly detailed and sometimes-shifting accounts of bin Laden’s final minutes after a decade on the run.
Obama said releasing the photographs taken by the Navy SEAL raiders was “not who we are” as a country. Though some may deny his death, “the fact of the matter is you will not see bin Laden walking this earth again,” the president said in an interview taped for CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
He said any release of the photos could become a propaganda tool for bin Laden’s adherents eager to incite violence.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president’s decision applied to photographs of bin Laden, said to show a portion of his skull blown away from a gunshot wound to the area of his left eye, as well as to a video recording of his burial several hours later in the North Arabian Sea.
The president made no public remarks during the day about the raid, apart from the taped interview. But he arranged a visit for today to ground zero in Manhattan, where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood.
After two days of shifting accounts of the dramatic raid, Carney said he would no longer provide details of the 40-minute operation by the team of elite Navy SEALs. That left unresolved numerous mysteries, prominent among them an exact accounting of bin Laden’s demise. Officials have said he was unarmed but resisted when an unknown number of commandos burst into his room inside the high-security compound.
The officials who gave the latest details said a U.S. commando grabbed a woman who charged toward the SEALs inside the room. They said the raiders were concerned that she might be wearing a suicide vest.
Administration officials have said bin Laden’s body was identified by several means, including a DNA test. Members of Congress who received a briefing during the day said a sample from the body killed at the compound in Pakistan was compared to known DNA from bin Laden’s mother and three sons.
After two days of speculation about releasing the photographs, there was no detectable public debate in the U.S. about the merits of the raid itself against the man behind the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on Sept. 11, 2001.
Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress the operation was “entirely lawful and consistent with our values” and justified as “an action of national self-defense.” Noting that bin Laden had admitted his involvement in the events of nearly a decade ago, he said, “It’s lawful to target an enemy commander in the field.”
Holder also said the team that carried out the raid had been trained to take bin Laden alive if he was willing to surrender. “It was a kill-or-capture mission,” he said. “He made no attempt to surrender.”
Bin Laden had evaded capture for nearly a decade, and officials said he had currency as well as two telephone numbers sewn into his clothing when he was killed, suggesting he was prepared to leave his surroundings on a moment’s notice if he sensed danger.
Administration officials said the two dozen SEALs involved in the operation were back at their home base outside Virginia Beach, Va., and the extensive debriefing they underwent was complete. Saluted as heroes nationwide, they remained publicly unidentified because of security concerns.
In addition to bin Laden’s body, the SEALs helicoptered out of the compound with computer files, flash drives, DVDs and documents that intelligence officials have begun analyzing in hopes the information will help them degrade or destroy the network bin Laden left behind.
In New York today, Carney said, Obama will lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site and hold a private meeting with relatives of some of the victims of the attacks, in which jetliners hijacked by terrorists were flown into the side of first one tower, then the other.
The buildings collapsed within minutes, dooming office workers as well as rescuers who had run in hoping to save them.
A few days later, then-President George W. Bush stood amid the rubble and spoke through a bullhorn. When one worker yelled, “I can’t hear you,” the president responded, “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”
A decade — and long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan later — Obama said he had no intention of gloating.
Obama’s decision not to release any photographs was unlikely to be the final word, though.
Some members of Congress have been shown at least one photo of bin Laden, and others have asked to see it, an indication of the intense interest generated by the raid.
The Associated Press on Monday requested through the Freedom of Information Act photos of bin Laden’s body as well as other materials, including video taken by military personnel during the raid and on the USS Carl Vinson, the ship that conducted bin Laden’s burial at sea. The government has 20 days to respond.