Who Has Seen the Osama bin Laden Death Photos?

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As the White House decides not to release the controversial photos to the American public, the images could still leak out through other parts of the government


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Osama Bin Laden
Updated 5:35 p.m. -- Exactly how dead is Osama bin Laden? While Americans are enjoying a collective catharsis following news of the al Qaeda leader's death in Pakistan, debate has broken out over whether the release of bin Laden's "death photos" to the public would deepen the sense of closure for the American people, or simply encourage more acts of terror abroad (or both). On Wednesday, the president decided not to release the photographs of bin Laden's body to the public.

But the highly-sensitive photographs of the slain terrorist leader appear to have already been viewed outside the executive branch by a small circle beyond the core national security team. In an interview with Fox News in Boston on Wednesday, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) stumbled after claiming that he'd seen the much-discussed photograph of bin Laden's face. The key moment comes at 0:44:

Sen. Scott Brown on attack ad; bin Laden: MyFoxBOSTON.com

Brown walked back his statements later in the day, admitting he was fooled by a fake that's been making the rounds on the Internet, the Boston Globe reports:

Shortly after the interviews, Brown's office sought to correct the senator's statements. 

NECN posted a statement on its website, saying, "Senator Brown's office tells NECN this afternoon that the bin Laden photos the Senator mentions seeing about 2 minutes into the clip here were not authentic." 

Fox 25 posted an update on its website, saying Brown had told the station that, "the photo that I saw and that a lot of other people saw is not authentic." 

Brown sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which exercises legislative oversight of the nation's military, including the Department of Defense, military research and development, and -- presumably -- special operations missions like the Navy SEAL team that stuck bin Laden's compound in Pakistan.

And he's not the only member of the committee claiming to have seen -- or to soon be in a position to see -- the photos, according to Fox News:

"We hear they will be made available," Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., a panel member, told Fox.

Tara Andringa, spokeswoman to Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., confirmed this.

"We expect committee members will be able to see them, but we don't know when," Andringa said. 

Already, two GOP members of the panel have seen at least one photo, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

Ayotte said she would not describe the photo she saw as "gruesome," as many officials have said. "They looked like (bin Laden). I could identify him," the freshman senator told Fox.

If all members of the committee had access to the photo, that would mean that, along with Brown, committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), and other members of the Armed Service Committee would see it as well. 

As of now, the question of who has seen the photo draws somewhat vague replies. "It's conceivable" that members of the committee have seen the photos, says Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for Levin, "but I don't know it to be true."

Lieberman's office said the senator has not seen the photos. "Senator Lieberman understands that this was a difficult judgment and respects the decision of the President to not release the photos. Senator Lieberman has not seen the photos, but he has been briefed on their content," Jeremy Kirkpatrick, the Connecticut independent's deputy press secretary, emailed.

It was unclear if Ayotte and Chambliss saw the same photos Brown had seen or different ones.

Has anyone else in the government seen the photographs?

The White House so far is mum. "I'm not going to get into who and where -- who's seen the photographs or where they are," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney at Wednesday's briefing.

With President Obama's decision to abstain from releasing the bin Laden death photos to the public, it's possible that circulation -- or even exhibition, as at a briefing -- of such material inside the chambers of Congress may eventually lead to their eventual distribution to media outlets and organizations like Wikileaks. Certainly, providing them to the legislative body that oversees the military affairs of the executive branch is both prudent and necessary, but should photographic proof of bin Laden's death trickle down through the government, the files, as our Technology Channel is fond of noting, will get out.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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