How the White House Mishandled the Press Surrounding Bin Laden

The administration ended up creating a media storm around the questions that matter least

The White House is blowing the media circus surrounding the Bin Laden assassination. It's become incontestable at this point.

Had bin Laden been blown to pieces by way of B2 bomber, nobody would be wasting black pixels on the ridiculous questions that are now dominating news: Was the woman killed his wife? Was she used as a human shield? Was bin Laden holding a gun?

We had the prerogative to kill him and we did.

Nobody in the press seems to care about the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of wives and women killed in drone strikes -- but this one seems to matter a great deal. Nor does the press seem to care about the questions that do matter -- for instance, what did Pakistan know about Tariq and Arshad Khan, the fat courier who employed the jihadi name Kuwaiti but spoke perfect Pashtu? What tribe did he hail from, and what role did he play amid the anti-Soviet insurgency of the 1980s where bin Laden made his name?

The White House, had it turned inward rather than celebratory, had it finished debriefs with the SEALs, and had it sent only one person out talking -- Jay Carney, preferably -- stood to gain substantially in all this.

But Barack Obama closed his book and called it a day far too early, trusting his press team and national security team could stay coherent.

The White House was right not to release the photos immediately but wrong to ponder the decision for so long. The photos must eventually emerge, and in the era of Wikileaks and identity fraud, citizens don't trust the government to hold on to things very well.

The administration would be well served to give them to the Saudis, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Jordanians, and a number of others in say, two months, then quietly ask one to misplace them with a reporter from the National in the UAE or the Dawn nearby.

The White House would then be forced to confirm that they are, in fact, the real photos taken on May 1 and 2, and experts from around the world could confirm that the face does -- genuinely -- look like what bin Laden might look like after taking one -- perhaps two -- bullets to the left and predictably front of his head.

The truth is that a great many people thought bin Laden was already dead. Some military operators would quietly question whether he existed at all. But he is now dead, and we in the West -- who have a vibrant press and trust institutions that, for instance, give birth certificates -- believe he is gone.

The Arab world is another story, and the pictures will need to surface eventually. Better not now, and better not intentionally.

I was at the White House Sunday night, with jeans pockets stuffed with Bud heavy cans. It was an irresistible and wonderful night. But those who study terrorism know this is precisely the wrong reaction. Jihadis are murderers and criminals, and must all be treated as such. They, like all terrorists, are after the three R's, in the words of scholar Louise Richardson, who nearly joined the IRA herself: revenge, renown, reaction.

Bin Laden enjoyed the first two, and we awarded him the third this week. And I don't blame our nation for it. But it's time to end the celebration.

It's certainly time for the White House to get in line. There should not be any more officials choosing their doubles for the film adaptation. That, Mr. Panetta, was simply embarrassing.

We've changed few of the things that drove 19 young men -- many of them quite well educated -- to crash planes into buildings. We remain steadfastly behind the government of Israel, unable to secure a peace deal that delivers dignity to both sides. An autocrat remains empowered in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and, most importantly, much of the Arab youth remains suffocated economically and socially. There is an opportunity at hand for much of that to change, and we must seize it.

Political currents are back in motion in the Middle East; we must not remain enamored with movie rights and gory details of a man that should have been killed in silence a decade ago.

Image credit: Reuters/Jim Young

Presented by

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program of the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., and the author of Conversations With Power. More

Brian Till is a Research Fellow with the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. He writes on foreign policy, the strengths and shortcomings of the millennial generation, and the perils of the digital age. Previously a nationally syndicated columnist, he is the author of a book of interviews with former global leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Fernando Henrique Cardosso, Bill Clinton, F.W. de Klerk, and Pervez Musharraf: Conversations With Power.

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