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President Obama decides not to release Bin Laden photos or more operational details; is that appropriate?

Published May 10, 2011

Watching White House spokesman Jay Carney field questions from reporters this afternoon on the President's decision not to release photos of a slain Osama bin Laden, he had the air of a school headmaster calling an end to a lunchroom ruckus.

Declining to answer questions on further operational details, Carney read a statement to reporters affirming the administration's belief the the strike on bin Laden's hideout was lawful and appropriate, without saying any more.

"The team had the authority to kill (OBL), unless he...surrendered," Carney said in part. "There is simply no question that this operation was lawful."

Clearly, the administration seems to be getting tired of the way its actions have been picked apart by partisan commentators and journalists trying to examine every moment leading to the death of the world's most wanted terrorist.

(The British newspaper The Guardian has published on its website photos of the aftermath of the raid. There is no photo of bin Laden, but there are graphic photos of other men killed in the raid and damage done to the compound. WARNING: these photos are very explicit and likely not suitable for children or sensitive work areas)

But is the White House's reaction appropriate? Shouldn't journalists be asking tough questions about bin Laden's death, instead of drowning doubts in a flood of pro-America jingoism?

Part of the problem, may be in conflating unreasonable paranoia with reasonable questions. Especially given that the administration on Tuesday had to significantly revise a narrative of the operational details from an account released on Monday filled with errors and misleading information.

In this environment, questions about releasing a photo of bin Laden almost seem beside the point. Anyone skeptical of whether he was actually dead wouldn't be convinced by a photo and concerns about inflaming violence seem reasonable.

But there are other pressing questions. How was the decision made to kill bin Laden? Why weren't any captives taken for interrogation? Who was shooting at the SEAL team?

Shooting bin Laden solved a lot of problems for America -- including where of if he might be tried for his crimes and whether that trial might become a platform for his propaganda. Isn't it possible SEAL team started mission with an understanding of how it was to end for the terrorist?

I hope journalists keep pushing for the best answers to these questions, with support from the same public which seems so eagar to cheer bin Laden's death. Because as awful as his crimes were, they don't absolve government officials from explaining their actions as fully as possible.

CBS has released a transcript of its 60 Minutes interview with President Obama where he talks about his decision not to release the photo; the full interview airs at 7 p.m. EST Sunday. Carney also read these remarks during the press conference, turning a 60 Minutes interview which would air for days into a way for the president to comment on a decision he just made.

The mind reels.

Here's the transcript:

STEVE KROFT: Did you see the pictures?


STEVE KROFT: What was your reaction when you saw them?


STEVE KROFT: Why haven't you released them?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know-- we discussed this internally. Keep in mind that-- we are absolutely certain this was him. We've done DNA-- sampling-- and testing. And-- and so there is no doubt that-- we killed-- Osama bin Laden. 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. You know, that's not who we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies. You know, the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was-- deserving of the justice that he received. And I think-- Americans and people around the world are glad that he's gone. But-- but we don't need to spike the football. And-- I think that given the-- the graphic nature of these photos-- it would-- create some national security risk. And I've discussed this with-- Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton and-- my intelligence teams and they all agree.