Barack Obama has made a "categorical" ruling against releasing pictures of Osama bin Laden's body, the White House spokesman said last night.
President Obama first revealed his decision earlier while recording an interview with CBS News to be broadcast on Sunday. He acknowledged that withholding the photographs might encourage conspiracy theorists who claim Bin Laden still lives, but said: "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 or as a propaganda tool."
The mythology surrounding Bin Laden looked to be growing all the same, with CIA director Leon Panetta revealing that Bin Laden had a €500 note and two telephone numbers sewn into his clothing, suggesting he had been prepared to flee in an emergency.
US intelligence was meanwhile switching its focus to finding the Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, the former No 2 and likely successor to Bin Laden as FBI and CIA teams hunted for clues as to his whereabouts in the trove of digital data seized when the al-Qa'ida leader was killed. Eric Holder, the US Attorney General, confirmed the seized materials – including five computers, 10 hard drives and scores of DVDs and thumb drives – were being analysed by experts. They were also scouring for information on any pending attacks on the US or elsewhere, Mr Holder said.
While the White House strived to contain the controversy triggered by the admission that Bin Laden had been unarmed when he was shot, President Obama prepared to build on the political benefits of the successful operation with a visit this morning to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. A poll published by CBS and The New York Times showed an 11-point boost in the President's approval rating to 57 per cent since Sunday.
Testifying on Capitol Hill, Mr Holder rejected suggestions that the Navy Seals may have erred in executing Bin Laden even though he had no gun, and said the killing "was an act of national self-defence". "The operation in which Osama bin Laden was killed was lawful," Mr Holder said. "He was the head of al-Qa'ida, an organisation that had conducted the attacks of September 11. He admitted his involvement."
Mr Obama decided to withhold the photographs of the deceased Bin Laden only hours after Mr Panetta said on NBC television that he felt sure they would be published. After consulting other cabinet members, including Hillary Clinton, he made the judgment out of concern that the images could trigger violence against US personnel overseas and be used as a propaganda tool, his spokesman Jay Carney indicated. If the decision threatens to make silencing conspiracy theorists more difficult, the White House was already struggling to exercise control over competing versions of what actually happened in the Bin Laden compound.
In an interrogation with Pakistani officials, Bin Laden's 12-year-old daughter reportedly confirmed her father had been killed. She said, however, that he had been captured first, then shot in front of his family. The al-Arabiya news network reported that members of Bin Laden's family who were in the compound during the raid were being treated at a hospital in Rawalpindi.
Zawahiri is now America's most wanted criminal. He is expected to stay as close to ground as possible. Analysts in the US noted, however, that if he is to be accepted as the new head of al-Qa'ida and its multiple splinter groups, he will have to find a way fairly soon to assert his authority and that will mean putting his head over the parapet. A possible rival could be Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born jihadist cleric who heads al-Qa'ida in Yemen.
"Zawahiri will be very careful of his personal security, but he needs to consolidate his position; he needs to be out there," Daniel Byman, a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Bloomberg News. "In his new capacity he needs to meet and communicate, and then he's vulnerable."
Mr Obama will lay a wreath at Ground Zero in Manhattan this morning but will not make any public address. The White House said the president had invited his predecessor, George W Bush, in office during the 2001 attacks, to accompany him. However, Mr Bush, who prefers to stay out of Mr Obama's political sunlight, declined the offer.
The seized digital materials may also help the US to answer a question that was asked almost immediately news of Bin Laden's demise broke: did anyone in the Pakistani government know of his whereabouts and even abet him in remaining in his compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad?
Pakistan tried yesterday to spread the blame for what appears to have been a mighty intelligence foul-up. "There is an intelligence failure of the whole world, not just Pakistan alone," Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said.
The unresolved issues about Bin Laden's capture
1. At what point was Osama bin Laden killed?
The initial claim "After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body." Barack Obama, Monday
What they're saying now "The team... were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation, and Osama bin Laden was killed by the assaulting force." Jay Carney, White House spokesman, Tuesday
The issue A curious phrase by a President who is careful with his words. Was he killed during the battle, or afterwards? Later White House briefings said he died during the raid. This view was uncontested until yesterday, and only from a 12-year-old daughter of Bin Laden. She claimed he was captured in the first minutes of the operation and then shot dead, according to Pakistani security sources cited by al-Arabiya.
2. Did Bin Laden use a human shield?
The initial claim "There was a female who was in fact in the line of fire that reportedly was used as a shield to shield Bin Laden from the incoming fire." John Brennan, counterterrorism adviser to the President, Monday
What they're saying now "In the room with Bin Laden... Bin Laden's wife, rushed the US assaulter and was shot in the leg but not killed." Jay Carney, Tuesday
The issue A claim – that the head of a feared terrorism network cowardly defended himself with the body of a woman – was bound to grab headlines. Mr Brennan incorrectly said the woman with Bin Laden had died. The woman who died was on a lower floor. It was not clear if she was used as a shield or caught in crossfire, said Carney later.
3. Was Bin Laden armed and did he fire?
The initial claim "He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in. And whether or not he got off any rounds, I quite frankly don't know." John Brennan, Monday
What they're saying now "Bin Laden was then shot and killed. He was not armed... I think resistance does not require a firearm." Jay Carney, Tuesday
The issue If Bin Laden fired on US forces, the decision to shoot and kill him is clearly one that is easier to justify. Brennan certainly gave the impression that he was armed, even if he did not fire. The otherwise consistent line from the administration has been that he "resisted" without saying what form that took.
4. Was intelligence used to track Bin Laden obtained through waterboarding?
The initial claim "Clearly some of it [information] came from detainees and the interrogation of detainees but we also had information from other sources as well." Leon Panetta, CIA director, Tuesday
What they're saying now "The fact is that no single piece of information led to the successful mission... And it simply strains credulity to suggest that a piece of information that may or may not have been gathered eight years ago somehow directly led to a successful mission on Sunday." Jay Carney, Tuesday
The issue The message from the CIA chief and the White House are not essentially different. Carney simply did not answer the question posed about whether information from "enhanced interrogation" had been used. Panetta did not deny it, but questioned whether it could have been obtained from other methods.
5. Was there any intention to take him alive?
The initial claim "If we had the opportunity to take Bin Laden alive, if he didn't present any threat, the individuals involved were able and prepared to do that." John Brennan, Monday
What they're saying now Bin Laden could have surrendered if US troops "were confident of that in terms of his not having an IED on his body, his not having some type of hidden weapon or whatever." John Brennan, Fox television interview, Tuesday
The issue The later statement by John Brennan, while not inconsistent with the first, suggested that it was very unlikely he would have been taken alive. Bin Laden would have had to be naked for that to be a possibility, according to an aide quoted in the Los Angeles Times. Panetta said that he did not believe Bin Laden had a chance to speak before he was killed.