White House backtracks: Bin Laden was unarmed

Obama administration says no decision has been made whether to release "inflammatory" photographs of slain al-Qaida leader.

Osama Bin Laden 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer/Files )
Osama Bin Laden 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer/Files )
The Obama administration wrestled on Tuesday with releasing what it called a gruesome image of Osama bin Laden's corpse, even as militants started questioning whether US forces really killed him.
Different parts of the Obama administration offered differing views, with CIA Director Leon Panetta saying there was never any doubt that ultimately a photograph of the al-Qaida leader would be released to the public.
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Also on Tuesday, the White House backtracked on an earlier claim that bin Laden was involved in a firefight with US soldiers when he was killed. White House spokesman Jay Carney said that bin Laden was unarmed when US forces raided his compound, but did put up a fight before he was shot.
Panetta, nominated by Obama to take over as defense secretary, acknowledged concerns and questions "that had to be debated" about the potential impact of releasing the photos.
"But the bottom line is that, you know, we got bin Laden and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him," he told NBC in an interview recorded before Carney made remarks to reporters.
But, signaling an intense internal debate was under way, the White House insisted no decision had yet been taken and noted the graphic nature of the imagery.
White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged the US also had several photographs of bin Laden himself – but were reserving judgment on whether to release them.
Carney said the photos that most clearly showed his identity were “gruesome,” with a massive open head wound across both eyes – adding that the US administration is considering the “inflammatory” nature of the photos before releasing them.
Skeptics have been calling for the photos to be released as evidence that bin Laden is truly dead, and Carney indicated the issue was currently under review.
He said the issue was whether a release would “in any way harm our interests... not just domestically, but globally.”
United States intelligence officials are mining a trove of computer equipment captured in the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound Sunday for information about future attacks, and other terror networks.
The US hopes they will be able to identify other high-value targets – as well as better understand the support network that sustained bin Laden in his massive compound in an affluent town, some 50 kilometers from Islamabad, for roughly five years.
The Navy SEALs who conducted the raid reportedly obtained five computers, 10 hard drives and 100 storage devices.
Carney also offered clarifying details of the raid, saying that bin Laden was unarmed and that his wife had been shot in the leg during the raid, but not killed, after she charged one of the US SEALs to protect her husband.
Another woman on a lower floor was killed in the crossfire, he said, though previously White House officials had referred to the use of a woman as a human shield.
He also specified that while bin Laden had resisted, he personally was not armed. However, Carney said many other militants in the compound did have firepower, leading to a “highly volatile” firefight preceding bin Laden’s death.
Carney also stressed that Sunday’s target was more than simply an effort to eliminate bin Laden.
“Lopping the head off the snake is important – but the body, while battered and bruised by the actions that we’ve taken over the years, is still there. We need to keep the fight up against al-Qaida,” he said.
White House counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, said earlier Tuesday on NBC that the administration believes it can destroy al-Qaida.
The organization bin Laden once headed has received “severe body blows” over the past year, he said “We’re determined to do so, and we believe we can.”