In the middle of last week, President Obama told 60 Minutes he wasn’t releasing the Osama Bin Laden death photos because he saw no “need to spike the football.” Another reason, he said, was to deny to Bin Laden’s supporters the “propaganda tool” that “very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head” might present.
Despite the president’s stated misgivings about spiking the ball, by Saturday his government was doing a sideline victory dance as it released five Bin Laden home videos captured in the Abbottabad raid. The videos, which Pentagon briefers milked with both fists for their propaganda value, depict Bin Laden as a beard-dyeing putz wrapped up in his TV blanket sitting in his ramshackle media room, using a remote control to channel-surf satellite news for coverage of himself. * Other videos show him missing his cues or flubbing words as he addresses the camera.
Elisabeth Bumiller reports in the May 8 New York Timesthat one reason the White House released the videos was to “further diminish the legacy and appeal of Bin Laden.” Bumiller continues:
The intelligence official who briefed reporters at an unusual Pentagon news conference on Saturday took pains to point out that Bin Laden, who was 54 when he was killed, had dyed his white beard black for his appearances in the videos—suggesting vanity or at least a desire to appear younger in videos made for distribution to his followers around the world.
The Washington Post’s Greg Millerinterprets the briefing similarly, writing that the videos were released “perhaps to present [Bin Laden] in settings that might embarrass his followers or at least minimize his mystique.” In a Commentary blog item, Max Boot applauded the release of the putz video, calling it an effective way of “breaking the spell” Bin Laden had over his devotees.
But if rendering the foe that you just exterminated as a washed-up, post-virile, shut-in isn’t spiking the football, I don’t know what is. Had the president been honest on 60 Minutes, he would have said that the United States loves to spike the ball on its own terms—that is, when the spiking carries little risk of retaliation.
The administration’s recent propaganda efforts—or exercise in news management or whatever you want to call it—deserve greater scrutiny. The administration sent two different messages over the weekend about the Bin Laden capture, one for the foreign audience that doesn’t speak much English and one for the domestic audience.
The message for the foreign audience is a visual one: Bin Laden had so lost his mojo that he was just an old man freezing in a dump watching television.
The message for the literate audience at home is almost the opposite. It can be found in the Times piece, where the unnamed briefing official (who paints Bin Laden as a diminished force) goes on to explain that the Abbottabad compound was a “command and control center” from which Bin Laden plotted attacks and directed al-Qaida operations. The Post conveys this second message, too, reporting that an official said that the “materials reviewed over the past several days clearly show that bin Laden remained an active leader,” still directing the “tactical details” of operations. Reduced to its essence, the administration is saying to the English-speaking reading audience: At the time of his death Bin Laden was as dangerous as ever.
I belabor the propaganda point because we are most vulnerable to it when we are frightened and when we are victorious. Because it has been so long since al-Qaida has hit the United States directly, the public is not very frightened of attacks, so propaganda about the dangers posed by the group would be ignored. But victories, such as the killing of Bin Laden, make us super susceptible to persuasion, manipulation, and propaganda. It’s times like these, when we don’t think anyone might be gaming us, that we should be on greatest guard.
Obama’s wreath-laying at Ground Zero and his visit to a New York fire station last week was his subtle way of taking a victory lap without being blatant about it, of taking credit for the killing without taking credit for it. As the press noted, Obama gave no big speech in New York and offered just a few remarks. He and his handlers were happy to let the images speak for them.
Of the many differences between the Obama administration and the Bush administration, nobody in Obama’s White House would ever allow a “Mission Accomplished” sign to serve as a backdrop for one of his speeches. This administration’s attitude toward propaganda is to let the press do the work. When it comes to the putz videos, Obama’s strategy is working perfectly.
I would really like to see the White House release video of the president channel surfing for coverage of himself. While we’re on the subject of Bin Laden, best of luck to the organizations that have FOIAed the death photos. What’s the best document ever FOIAed? Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org and watch my Twitter feed for the best submission. (Email may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Correction, May 10, 2011: This article originally stated that one of the videos depicted Osama Bin Laden channel-surfing from a couch. Bin Laden was sitting on either a pillow or a carpet. (Return to the corrected sentence.)