Photoshop: the new public enemy #1. (image: twolf1)

President Obama has decided not to release photographic evidence of Osama bin Laden’s dead corpse. He revealed the decision while taping an interview with 60 Minutes, which will air Sunday. Here’s his rationale:

Said Obama: “The risks of release outweigh the benefits. Conspiracy theorists around the world will just claim the photos are doctored anyway, and there is a real risk that releasing the photos will only serve to inflame public opinion in the Middle East.”

He added: “Imagine how the American people would react if Al Qaida killed one of our troops or military leaders, and put photos of the body on the internet. Osama bin Laden is not a trophy — he is dead and let’s now focus on continuing the fight until Al Qaida has been eliminated.”

(Something is very, very strange about this, because this is the precise language of an alleged statement from House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers. So somebody is wrong. But I’d imagine the general outlines of a rationale for not releasing the photos would go like this.)

UPDATE: Political Wire got it wrong. CBS makes clear that this rationale is attributed to Rep. Mike Rogers.

I’ve gone back and forth on this. Given the existence of Photoshop in this day and age, it’s impossible to have such a thing as photographic evidence for at least some set of people. And I think the counterfactual is useful here. You’ll remember that George Bush released pretty grisly photos of Uday and Qusay Hussein, which were summarily splashed across front pages, and they definitely gave me a queasy feeling at the time. The word “trophy” came to my mind as well.

And yet. I find Kevin Drum compelling here. These are public records.

These are public records of a very public operation against public enemy #1, and like it or not the public should have access to them. The only reason to withhold them would be for reasons of operational security, and I don’t think that applies here. Security issues are probably legitimate when it comes to releasing real-time video of the actual raid, but not to still photos of bin Laden himself.

The Obama Administration talks a lot of talk about transparency, but particularly on anything national security-related, do not walk the walk. He stopped the release of photos of torture taken before his watch, and for the same reason, to avoid inflaming the Muslim world. I don’t find that convincing. It seems more like official secrecy and overclassification rearing its ugly head.

Two further thoughts. One, this directly contradicts Leon Panetta, who said yesterday on the PBS NewsHour that the public was likely to see the photo, and who was clearly pushing for release. Given his newfound stature in the Administration, that’s a little surprising.

FInally, there’s a middle ground here which Steve Clemons points out:

Over the last couple of days, I have talked to many senior level correspondents and executives at major Arabic news networks including but not limited to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. I asked them what they thought their viewing audience “needed to see” regarding the death of Osama bin Laden.

The answer has been consistent and uniform. Not withstanding any decision to release a “death photo” of Osama bin Laden — which I personally believe should be released, photos of bin Laden’s corpse being scrubbed, and receiving final Muslim death rites should be released simultaneously.

Bin Laden was one of the world’s greatest villains, and many in the Muslim world completely accept that — but at the same time, they strongly believe that respect for bin Laden as a Muslim translates into respect for all Muslims, good and bad. The White House and those involved with tracking and killing bin Laden feel similarly as so much emphasis has been placed by the White House on the issue that bin Laden received a burial at sea consistent with Islamic tradition.

Again, they’re all public records, though reasonable people can probably disagree on this one.

David Dayen

David Dayen