John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun
Posted by John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun on May 12, 2011 in News Clips
The Baltimore County lawmaker, the top-ranking Democrat of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, was among the first lawmakers to view the pictures at the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va. His reaction was more muted than those of some of his colleagues, who described the photographs as gruesome.
The White House has not released the photos, taken by U.S. special operations forces after the May 2 raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. But lawmakers serving on key intelligence and armed services committees have been invited to see them.
"My first thought was, 'This was Osama bin Laden,'" said Ruppersberger, who has said he was briefed on the bin Laden operation as far back as March and received warning of the strike from CIA Director Leon Panetta.
"It wasn't really gruesome," he said. "There was some blood, but his face was not distorted to the point where you couldn't really determine who he was."
While some have expressed skepticism about the raid, President Barack Obama has said he will not release the photos to prove that U.S. forces killed bin Laden. At least some of the skepticism has subsided now that other al-Qaida leaders and bin Laden family members have acknowledged his death.
"We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," Obama said during an interview with CBS. "The fact of the matter is, this is somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received."
Ruppersberger said he spent about 30 minutes viewing the pictures in a fourth-floor conference room at CIA headquarters. Analysts presented several hard-copy pictures of bin Laden alive alongside the pictures of his body and highlighted matching facial features with arrows, Ruppersberger said.
The pictures showed bin Laden's face and body, including one in which he was wrapped in white undershirt or robe, Ruppersberger said. Another showed bin Laden's body on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson before he was buried at sea.
Ruppersberger noted details that he said were surprising. He said, for instance, that bin Laden's beard was "darker than we thought."
While the pictures were respectful, he said, he agrees with the administration's decision not to release them for the time being.
"We don't want to inflame people who support bin Laden," he said. "We don't want to put Americans at risk."
Members serving on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senate Armed Services Committee, House Intelligence Committee and House Armed Services Committee were allowed to see the pictures. It is not clear how many members of Congress have accepted the offer.
Some, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, decided against seeing them.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican who serves on the House intelligence Committee and who has been promoted by some conservatives as a potential presidential candidate in 2012, said she, too, was convinced that bin Laden was dead.
"We got our man," she said in a statement.
Other members of Congress had a more visceral reaction to the photographs. Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, described the pictures as "pretty graphic," in an interview with Politico. "It was hard to tell if the bullet went through his ear and out the eye socket or vice versa," Inhofe said.
James J. Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute, opposes the release of the photos and said Thursday that he also sees little value in letting members of Congress view and then discuss them publicly. He questioned whether lawmakers' untrained eyes could draw any meaningful conclusions from the viewing.
"It may have provided some members bragging rights — something to talk about," Zogby said. "The bottom line is, if you believe the intelligence reports … you do, and if you don't, these pictures aren't going to convince" you.
Ruppersberger said he viewed photographs of bodies as an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County in the 1970s. He said there is value in having members of Congress view the pictures of bin Laden.
"It was important [to] our oversight role," he said. "We wanted to make sure that the conclusion they came to — that this was Osama bin Laden — was correct."