IP Picture of the Year: Finding Osama

Iconic Photos’ Picture of the Year goes to the photo taken during forty most intense minutes of the Obama White House. Due to the lack of images of bin Laden’s graphic death, the above photo of President Obama and his National Security Team inside the Situation Room, taken during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, immediately became a photographic “icon”. It drew 1.6 million views in 38 hours on Flickr — making it one of the website’s most popular photos ever.

(1) deeply Catholic Vice President Biden is fiddling with rosary beads (hidden by the laptop); Biden previously urged the president to focus more on Pakistan and use more drone attacks there.

(2) When Osama bin Laden is killed, President Obama solemnly broke the silence: “We got him.” Those may perhaps be the defining words of his presidency. Yet, here in the photo, his crouching position and grave expression reveal the deep anxieties of a man who had wagered everything in.

(3) Brigadier General Marshall ‘Brad’ Webb is Assistant Commanding General of Joint Special Operations Command. He is the only uniformed aide in the room.

(4) Admiral Mike Mullen, the departing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the president’s top military advisor. Mullen, who had never seen eye to eye with the president over the Afghan policy, was no doubt glad that the United States got bin Laden before Mullen’s own term expired in September.

(5) National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is a Washington grandee. His brother Mike and his wife Catherine are both aides to Biden. He was one of Obama’s aides once derided as the “Politburo” by the Pentagon. Two days before, he signed the authorization order to the CIA to go forward with the execution.

(6) Bill Daley is the scion of Chicago’s legendary Daley Family and the son and brother of Chicago mayors. A lawyer and former banker, he is White House Chief of Staff.

(7) Tony Blinken worked as Biden’s National Security Advisor for the last ten years, nearly the entire post 9/11 period. His influence on Biden’s worldview is immense, and his worried glance over Daley’s shoulder suggests that the photo was taken at a key moment. I have met Blinken before, making the photo more personal.

(8) As director of counterterrorism working on bin Laden file, Audrey Tomason is the youngest and the most junior official in the room. There are suggestions that her clandestine cover had inadvertently been blown by the photo. (See here for another agent whose identity might have been compromised by this photo.)

(9) Officially, John Brennan was Obama’s Homeland Security Assistant; unofficially, Brennan was the administration’s bin-Laden-hunter-in-chief. He joined the CIA after answering a newspaper ad and was the agency’s station chief in Saudi Arabia. He is the only one in the room who speaks fluent Arabic. He described the operation as “minutes passed like days.”

(10) As Director of National Intelligence, it was James Clapper’s job to coordinate rival intelligence bureaus.

(11) Denis McDonough, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor was also one of his closest aides, a status reflected by his ringside seat despite his youth and low seniority. He played a key role in pushing the president to honor his campaign pledge of pursuing bin Laden into Pakistan with or without Pakistani government’s approval and to authorize an Afghani surge.

(12) At the focus of the photo was the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose shocked expression lent deep meaning to the picture. While she insisted that she was probably trying to stifle a cough caused by her spring allergies, it was a 3-am-call moment for Clinton.

(13) Robert Gates, the departing Secretary of Defense gives a determined stare that suggests that he was unperturbed by what he is watching; his face showed that he didn’t harbor a trace of doubt that the mission would be a success. Nonetheless, he was a leading skeptic of the raid, and advocated for an airstrike.

N.B. A classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured.


Internet age meant that it took less than a day for the above photo to become a meme; everything and everyone from joysticks to the Situation was introduced into the room. A lego version was also created.

Some argue that presence of Clinton and Tomason marks a giant leap after decades of all-male line-ups at the crucial moments of national crisis, but the Hasidic Jewish newspaper Der Tzitung begged to differ. Citing an ultra-Orthodox Jewish laws banning ‘sexually suggestive images’, it erased Clinton and Tomason from the photo. It later apologized for its attempt to alter history.

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0 thoughts on “IP Picture of the Year: Finding Osama

  1. The guy on the far right – next to James Clapper with folded arms – must be really upset that his face didn’t get into the frame of this now famous photo!

  2. Admiral Mullen is in uniform — note the insignia on his collar. He is not wearing the dress jacket, suggesting that he had been there for some time working.

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