WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday he has decided not to release death photos of terrorist Osama bin Laden because their graphic nature could incite violence and create national security risks for the United States. Separately, officials told The Associated Press that the Navy SEALs who stormed bin Laden’s compound shot him dead after they saw him appear to lunge for a weapon.
Obama, in an interview with CBS News, said bin Laden’s death had been well-established and people who did not believe it would not be convinced by gruesome photos, either.
“It would be of no benefit to gloat,” he said.
“There are going to be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is you won’t see bin Laden walking on this earth again,” said Obama.
On the SEALs’ deadly encounter with bin Laden, the officials, who had been briefed on the operation, said several weapons were found in the room where the terror chief died, including AK-47 assault rifles and side arms. The officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly, commented only on condition of anonymity.
The new word about the reason bin Laden was shot and killed rather than taken into custody came after changing White House accounts that raised questions about the rationale: first that bin Laden was armed, then that he was not.
The officials who gave the latest details on Thursday also said that a U.S. commando grabbed a woman who charged toward the SEALs. The raiders were concerned, the officials said, that she might be wearing a suicide vest.
Photos taken by the SEAL raiders show bin Laden shot in the head, numerous officials have said. CIA Director Leon Panetta said Tuesday he expected at least one photo to be released. Asked about that, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the decision had not been made then.
But Carney also said the president never doubted his position on not releasing the photos. Obama said in the interview, “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.”
“I think that, given the graphic nature of these photos, it would create some national security risk,” he said. The president made his comments in an interview Wednesday with CBS’ “60 Minutes”; Carney read the president’s quotes to reporters in the White House briefing room ahead of the program’s airing.
Carney said there would not be images released of bin Laden’s burial at sea, either.
Some family members of those who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks thought it important to document bin Laden’s death, as did some Arab skeptics who doubted his demise in the absence of convincing evidence. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said in a statement that Obama’s decision was a mistake.
“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.”
Many other lawmakers and others expressed concerns that the photographic images could be seen as a “trophy” that would inflame U.S. critics and make it harder for members of the American military deployed overseas to do their jobs.
Obama’s decision on the photos came a day ahead of his planned visit to ground zero in New York City to lay a wreath and visit with Sept 11 families and emergency workers.
It also came after a revised description of the circumstances of bin Laden’s death. After initially saying the terrorist was armed or even firing, the White House said Tuesday that bin Laden was unarmed. Carney had said bin Laden was resisting, but without offering details. The information — from officials speaking anonymously to discuss the sensitive operation — that he was seen appearing to reach for a weapon adds context for the SEALS’ action.
Attorney General Eric Holder, in a congressional appearance, sought to underscore the legality of the shooting.
“Let me make something very clear: The operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful,” Holder told senators Wednesday. The raid “was justified as an action of national self-defense” against “a lawful military target,” he said.
Carney said that the SEAL team that raided the compound where bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, Pakistan, had the authority to kill him unless he offered to surrender, in which case the team was required to accept the surrender.
“Consistent with the laws of war, bin Laden’s surrender would have been accepted if feasible,” said Carney.
Meanwhile, officials said the two dozen SEALs involved in the operation are back at their home base outside Virginia Beach, Va., and the extensive debriefing they underwent is complete. U.S. officials have begun 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 with him when he was killed, U.S. officials said, a possible indication that the terrorist mastermind was ready to flee his compound on short notice.
Associated Press writers Matt Apuzzo, Nedra Pickler, Nancy Benac, Ben Feller, Jim Kuhnhenn and Julie Pace contributed to this report.