What is Obama watching here?

The photo of the week raises all sorts of questions. Here are the best answers we can find

Published May 5, 2011 9:30PM (EDT)

The iconic shot inside the Situation Room, May 1, 2011.
The iconic shot inside the Situation Room, May 1, 2011.

So much of the news this week has been centered on photographs: photographs we can't see, photographs we can see but not understand. In particular, in the absence of an image of Osama bin Laden's body, our collective focus has been drawn toward a curious photo of Obama and his national security team assembled in the Situation Room on Sunday.

The image, which now has nearly 2 million views on Flickr, has appeared on every major news website and turned up in countless newspapers and television broadcasts this week. But it’s also sparked questions (and spawned spoofs) worldwide. The most basic query: What is actually going on here?

To find out, let's start at the beginning, with the caption provided by the White House on its Flickr photostream (key phrase in bold):

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Binken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured.

The information offered here is minimal, and since Monday, it’s become clear that reporters -- and members of the general public -- are hungry for more. What kind of an "update" is Obama receiving? Is he getting a video briefing from someone at the CIA? Or (more excitingly) is he perhaps watching live video of the Abbottabad raid?

It didn’t take long for this last line of reasoning to reach its logical conclusion, with one tabloid baldly declaring on Tuesday that Obama had "watched Bin Laden die on live video." It's an eye-grabbing headline, and even though there’s probably no truth to it, people continue to speculate.

CIA director Leon Panetta has done his best to discourage them. He claims that there was a 20- to 25-minute blackout after the SEALs' initial "approach" to bin Laden’s compound, which would rule out the possibility of Obama's having seen the death of bin Laden on film at all, much less in this particular photo. Panetta’s exact words: "We had some observation of the approach there, but we did not have direct flow of information as to the actual conduct of the operation itself as they were going through the compound."

Press secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have also addressed the photo. Both confirmed it was taken at some point during the 38-minute Abbottabad raid, but neither would describe exactly what the pictured group was watching.

In Rome on Wednesday, Clinton said: "Those were 38 of the most intense minutes. I have no idea what any of us were looking at that particular millisecond when the picture was taken." (She added -- to the sound of thousands of bloggers collectively taking to their keyboards -- "I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs.") You can see her comments here, starting around 1:15:

Carney's account appeared to contradict Panetta's claim that "there was a time period of almost 20 or 25 minutes where we really didn't know just exactly what was going on." Said Carney: "The president and his top national security aides in the Situation Room had available to them minute-by-minute updates on the operation, and that photograph was taken during the operation."

Although most speculation has focused on what the people in the Situation Room were watching, a minor controversy did erupt on Tuesday over the identity of the “mystery woman” standing in the doorway of the room -- identified in the Flickr caption as "Director for Counterterrorism" Audrey Tomason -- who was unfamiliar to news reporters and cultural observers alike. The Daily Beast tried (and failed) to establish much beyond what was in the original caption; Daniel Stone wrote:

When The Daily Beast asked the White House press office about Tomason, an official said she worked with the National Security Council, a White House agency closely involved with the intelligence that led to bin Laden. The official intimated that the White House generally doesn't discuss personnel at any of the government's covert or intelligence agencies. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the NSC, confirmed she worked with the agency. When asked why she had never been identified or mentioned before, Vietor responded "Well, we've never killed bin Laden before."

A Wikipedia page has since been created for Tomason; it claims she is chief of the CIA's Global Jihad Unit, based on an unverified blog post published Wednesday that shakily equated Tomason with "Frances," the "counterterrorism analyst" cited in this AP piece about the 2003 kidnapping of Khaled el-Masri.

It was Los Angeles local network KTLA that dissected the photo most thoroughly, zooming in to reveal tiny but intriguing details, such as the document “burn bag” just visible near Obama’s right knee and code word NOFORN on Hillary’s binder: 


Despite these small revelations, the picture remains mysterious. “The White House refuses to say exactly what was happening in the moment captured by Pete Souza," the AP summed up yesterday, adding: "Officials said that revealing details could disclose sensitive information about how such operations are run." In spite of the lack of a clear narrative, the press service did do its best to shed some light, reporting:

It appears the president would have been able to see one of two U.S. helicopters fall and land hard inside the compound just as the SEALs started sliding down the rope, indicating that the risky mission was not going as planned. Obama was getting the same feed as the one being piped into an operations center at CIA headquarters, an aerial view of the compound. A U.S. official described the tense moments at Langley of the hard helicopter landing, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the classified operation.

Taking all these reports into consideration, it seems the only conclusion we can make is that there isn’t any clear conclusion here -- at least about what Obama and his team were watching. In fact, the single thing we can be sure of, according to all these accounts, is that Obama was not watching bin Laden die in the picture.

Given our apparent inability to establish what, exactly, is going on, one question a lot of people continue to ask is: Why do we really care? What are people hoping to find out by looking at and discussing this photo again and again?

People care about the Situation Room photo, and are drawn to it, because the debate about this photo has become a microcosm of the debate about the Abbottabad raid itself. In both cases, it's not actually clear what went on; in both cases, the official explanation offered has been substandard. And the strange thing is that, in both cases, the White House controlled the story from the beginning -- so there is no good reason for the inconsistency of its response.

The original narrative of Sunday’s raid, provided on Monday afternoon by John Brennan, was not exposed as flimsy because any individual journalist was able to bring up proof that it was false; bizarrely, it was backtracked by the White House itself. The White House and CIA have now also proceeded to offer conflicting accounts of what may or may not have been going on in one of the government’s own publicity photos. It should be easy enough for the White House to pick a single (ideally accurate) narrative, and stick to it -- for major military operations and official photo captions alike. 

By Emma Mustich

Emma Mustich is a Salon contributor. Follow her on Twitter: @emustich.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Osama Bin Laden White House