Analyzing the Situation Room photo

We don’t get to see a photograph of Osama bin Laden’s body, but we did get to see a  photograph of the President and his team watching the mission go down.  It’s quite dramatic to see the expressions on everyone’s faces during this intense moment–the President’s intense stare, the Secretary of State’s hand covering her face (apparently in emotion, though she says now she might have just been coughing due to her allergies).

The Situation Room during the bin Laden operation

The Washington Post features various experts commenting on the picture.  I was especially taken by this one by art critic Philip Kennicott:

At least two basic metaphors of power are at play: being in the room and at the table. Both metaphors expressly exclude us, the viewers of the photo, who are not there, not in the loop. The photograph fascinates because it represents the most basic aspects of political power: knowledge, access, influence and proximity.

The photograph thus puts the viewer in a subordinate position. But the chain of meanings continues at least one more step. The anxiety on the faces shows the degree to which some of the most powerful people in the world can’t control events. They (and their administration) are subordinate to chance and fate, to unknown unknowns and known unknowns.

So the sequence is this: We have less power than they do, and they have less power than reality. The photographer creates a kind of “V” of sightlines to emphasize this drama: We look in from one angle as they look out at another, almost a perfect mirror image.

We enjoy narratives of great power because we have so little power in our own lives over things such as errant buses, disease, death and the vicissitudes of love. The photo reveals that sometimes even people who seem to have invested in them the talent and power to be masters of their fate are frightened, worried, tense and uncertain. And so by excluding us from the world of one kind of power, the photo reminds of a more fundamental powerlessness. It keeps us out of one room but puts us all in another, from which there is no exit.

via Breaking down the Situation Room – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Carl Vehse

    It seems the WaPost analyzed an earlier version of the Situation Room scene. There is now a revised version, showing all of the participants in the Situation Room.

    In his article, “Bin Laden Killing: How the White House, Pentagon and CIA Botched the Storyline” James Rosen recounts the “riotous cacophony of claims and counter-claims [which] has emanated from official podiums and anonymous sources, reputable reporters and unknown websites, everything, it seems, equipped with a screen, a speaker, or a mouth.”

  • Carl Vehse

    It seems the WaPost analyzed an earlier version of the Situation Room scene. There is now a revised version, showing all of the participants in the Situation Room.

    In his article, “Bin Laden Killing: How the White House, Pentagon and CIA Botched the Storyline” James Rosen recounts the “riotous cacophony of claims and counter-claims [which] has emanated from official podiums and anonymous sources, reputable reporters and unknown websites, everything, it seems, equipped with a screen, a speaker, or a mouth.”

  • Carl Vehse

    In one of the many versions CIA chief Leon Panetta has told the MSM that, instead of watching the Abbattobad firefight via the commandos’ helmet-cam videos fed into the White House big screens (as pictured and previously claimed), there was nearly a half-hour video blackout in which they watched nothing.

    In another version, despite the grim facial expressions of WH officials watching the intense commando attack (or the blank WH screen), it was claimed that Hillary Clinton’s hand-over-mouth expression was because of a cough due to a spring allergy, and not one showing anxiety. Here’s a picture of Hillary actually coughing.

    Nevertheless, Hillary’s coolness and composure under intense combat conditions is well known since, as the former first lady recalls, she came under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996.

  • Carl Vehse

    In one of the many versions CIA chief Leon Panetta has told the MSM that, instead of watching the Abbattobad firefight via the commandos’ helmet-cam videos fed into the White House big screens (as pictured and previously claimed), there was nearly a half-hour video blackout in which they watched nothing.

    In another version, despite the grim facial expressions of WH officials watching the intense commando attack (or the blank WH screen), it was claimed that Hillary Clinton’s hand-over-mouth expression was because of a cough due to a spring allergy, and not one showing anxiety. Here’s a picture of Hillary actually coughing.

    Nevertheless, Hillary’s coolness and composure under intense combat conditions is well known since, as the former first lady recalls, she came under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996.

  • Kirk

    @1 I think my favorite thing in the world is that Bobby Ross was there.

  • Kirk

    @1 I think my favorite thing in the world is that Bobby Ross was there.

  • Tom Hering

    Thanks, Carl, for confirming my belief that the Far Right hates Obama more than it ever hated Osama. Thank God you guys aren’t in charge of our national security. During the time the President was hunting bin Laden, you guys have been hunting … birth certificates or something. :-D

  • Tom Hering

    Thanks, Carl, for confirming my belief that the Far Right hates Obama more than it ever hated Osama. Thank God you guys aren’t in charge of our national security. During the time the President was hunting bin Laden, you guys have been hunting … birth certificates or something. :-D

  • Richard

    This over-analysis of photos is really garbage. Has anyone bothered to read “The Humiliation of the Word,” by Jacques Ellul? Ellul does a terrific take-down of visual images and their depiction of reality as opposed to truth.

  • Richard

    This over-analysis of photos is really garbage. Has anyone bothered to read “The Humiliation of the Word,” by Jacques Ellul? Ellul does a terrific take-down of visual images and their depiction of reality as opposed to truth.

  • DonS

    These kinds of photos are almost always staged. There was a wire service article yesterday concerning President Obama’s East Room announcement that Osama had been killed, explaining that the still photos were reenactments because still photographers were not permitted in the room during the actual announcement. The distraction is too great. So, they were invited in after the announcement, and he re-enacted his walk to the podium and the first 30 seconds of the speech for the still cameras. The angle of the article is that newspapers ethically should tell the reader that the photos are re-enactments.

    I’m not picking on Obama — according to this article such reenactments for presidential speeches have been going on since Nixon, and maybe before, for very understandable reasons. But, the point is, given the fact that such staging (“press opportunities”) are common in the political world, analyzing this particular photo in such a way is pretty much nuts.

  • DonS

    These kinds of photos are almost always staged. There was a wire service article yesterday concerning President Obama’s East Room announcement that Osama had been killed, explaining that the still photos were reenactments because still photographers were not permitted in the room during the actual announcement. The distraction is too great. So, they were invited in after the announcement, and he re-enacted his walk to the podium and the first 30 seconds of the speech for the still cameras. The angle of the article is that newspapers ethically should tell the reader that the photos are re-enactments.

    I’m not picking on Obama — according to this article such reenactments for presidential speeches have been going on since Nixon, and maybe before, for very understandable reasons. But, the point is, given the fact that such staging (“press opportunities”) are common in the political world, analyzing this particular photo in such a way is pretty much nuts.

  • Porcell

    This is the same administration that in its third day in office did away with the excellent, lawful CIA aggressive interrogation program that yielded key evidence leading to the final take down of Obama.

    To compound matters Obama announced the FBI would do future interrogations using Army Field Manual procedures that are available on the internet and being presently used by alQuaeda to train its operatives.

  • Porcell

    This is the same administration that in its third day in office did away with the excellent, lawful CIA aggressive interrogation program that yielded key evidence leading to the final take down of Obama.

    To compound matters Obama announced the FBI would do future interrogations using Army Field Manual procedures that are available on the internet and being presently used by alQuaeda to train its operatives.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Here is the real picture. The reason Hillary looks so anxious is because the Galaxians almost got the Commander in Chief’s last remaining spaceship.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Here is the real picture. The reason Hillary looks so anxious is because the Galaxians almost got the Commander in Chief’s last remaining spaceship.

  • Jonathan

    Porcell, I love how you combine love of torturing others with your love of Christ.

    Westfall, the childishness of your posts never ceases to amaze.

  • Jonathan

    Porcell, I love how you combine love of torturing others with your love of Christ.

    Westfall, the childishness of your posts never ceases to amaze.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Thanks for your observation, Jonathan. The “childishness” of my commentary is probably related to the “love of torturing others” that I share with Porcell.

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Thanks for your observation, Jonathan. The “childishness” of my commentary is probably related to the “love of torturing others” that I share with Porcell.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Staged or not, apparently the existence of Hillary Clinton in the photo was too much for Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Staged or not, apparently the existence of Hillary Clinton in the photo was too much for Hasidic newspaper Der Tzitung.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And I’m not sure I buy DonS’s conjecture (@6), either. There’s certainly nothing to indicate with certainty that this photo was staged.

    Moreover, the official White House Flickr feed which is almost certainly everybody’s source for this photo appears to be intentionally vague as to what exactly they’re watching or hearing, in its caption:

    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.

    If you zoom in on that photo, you can see a few interesting things: Hillary’s binder that says “TOP SECRET CODEWORD NOFORN” at the top (meaning distribution to non-US citizens is prohibited, regardless of their clearance or access permissions). There’s also a color document that is pixellated out, and underneath that another color document that is almost certainly a satellite photo of Osama’s compound.

    Now that I think about it, I’d argue that the pixellated document argues against this being a staged photo, since you’d have to conjecture that they brought everyone back into the Situation Room to act like they were watching something, and, whoops also left out a classified document for this staged photo. Seems unlikely.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    And I’m not sure I buy DonS’s conjecture (@6), either. There’s certainly nothing to indicate with certainty that this photo was staged.

    Moreover, the official White House Flickr feed which is almost certainly everybody’s source for this photo appears to be intentionally vague as to what exactly they’re watching or hearing, in its caption:

    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.

    If you zoom in on that photo, you can see a few interesting things: Hillary’s binder that says “TOP SECRET CODEWORD NOFORN” at the top (meaning distribution to non-US citizens is prohibited, regardless of their clearance or access permissions). There’s also a color document that is pixellated out, and underneath that another color document that is almost certainly a satellite photo of Osama’s compound.

    Now that I think about it, I’d argue that the pixellated document argues against this being a staged photo, since you’d have to conjecture that they brought everyone back into the Situation Room to act like they were watching something, and, whoops also left out a classified document for this staged photo. Seems unlikely.

  • Chaps

    What is I see is this
    -Air Force 2 star at working getting it done
    -everyone else watching
    -President in corner looking insignificant
    -Sec of State looking like we made a mistake

    and the rest of us wondering if they are seeing any action or staring at a scrambled screen as the lost video for a significant portion of the raid. Maybe this is the part where they figure out they lost the stealth helo-bird.

  • Chaps

    What is I see is this
    -Air Force 2 star at working getting it done
    -everyone else watching
    -President in corner looking insignificant
    -Sec of State looking like we made a mistake

    and the rest of us wondering if they are seeing any action or staring at a scrambled screen as the lost video for a significant portion of the raid. Maybe this is the part where they figure out they lost the stealth helo-bird.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Chaps (@13), Marshall B. “Brad” Webb is a brigadier general.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Chaps (@13), Marshall B. “Brad” Webb is a brigadier general.

  • SKPeterson

    I’m struck more by the restricted confines of the room. A third rate conference room on the J corridor was all that IT could set up? It looks like their all watching a poorly mounted 32″ TV on the wall at the Holiday Inn. The only thing that says “Official” is the hastily mounted seal on the back wall, the carrying and placement of which is probably the job of the girl in the background of the photo Mike posted.

    Come on. I’ve seen all the cool movies with expansive conference room tables in the middle of large high-tech meeting spaces, massive banks of hi-def tv screens showing multiple on-site cameras, simultaneous overhead satellite imagery. Bill Gates or Steven Jobs would not have settled for this sort of shlock.

    Also, other than the general – do any of these people have security clearances?

  • SKPeterson

    I’m struck more by the restricted confines of the room. A third rate conference room on the J corridor was all that IT could set up? It looks like their all watching a poorly mounted 32″ TV on the wall at the Holiday Inn. The only thing that says “Official” is the hastily mounted seal on the back wall, the carrying and placement of which is probably the job of the girl in the background of the photo Mike posted.

    Come on. I’ve seen all the cool movies with expansive conference room tables in the middle of large high-tech meeting spaces, massive banks of hi-def tv screens showing multiple on-site cameras, simultaneous overhead satellite imagery. Bill Gates or Steven Jobs would not have settled for this sort of shlock.

    Also, other than the general – do any of these people have security clearances?

  • DonS

    tODD @ 12: I’m not saying the photo was staged. All I am saying is that, since staging photos is commonplace in the world of the White House, it’s kind of silly to spend a great deal of time and resources over-analyzing the photo.

    What IS significant about these kinds of photos is who is in them, and who is not. And, that Joe Biden was apparently awake.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 12: I’m not saying the photo was staged. All I am saying is that, since staging photos is commonplace in the world of the White House, it’s kind of silly to spend a great deal of time and resources over-analyzing the photo.

    What IS significant about these kinds of photos is who is in them, and who is not. And, that Joe Biden was apparently awake.

  • Carl Vehse

    tODD @12,
    There’s also a color document in front of Joe Biden that has not been pixelated. At least the classified laptops have their screens turned off or blacked out.

  • Carl Vehse

    tODD @12,
    There’s also a color document in front of Joe Biden that has not been pixelated. At least the classified laptops have their screens turned off or blacked out.

  • DonS

    At the very least, as Carl pointed out, we can be sure, or at least hope, that, with all of that classified stuff in the room, the photographer would not have had carte blanche to just snap and publicize photos at will.

  • DonS

    At the very least, as Carl pointed out, we can be sure, or at least hope, that, with all of that classified stuff in the room, the photographer would not have had carte blanche to just snap and publicize photos at will.

  • http://joewulf.wordpress.com joe

    Hate to pile on the childishness, but who let John Lithgow in to the room? (crossed arms fifth from the left)

  • http://joewulf.wordpress.com joe

    Hate to pile on the childishness, but who let John Lithgow in to the room? (crossed arms fifth from the left)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@16), it would only be “silly to spend a great deal of time and resources over-analyzing the photo” if it were staged. Again, I have a pretty good reason to believe it was not staged. You seem to have no particularly good reason to argue that it was. You also seem to be spending no small amount of time yourself on analyzing the photo. Also, I don’t think anyone here is arguing that the official White House photographer has “carte blanche to just snap and publicize photos at will” — though it would appear that the restrictions are more on the “publicizing” end of things (which is how this now-infamous photo got slightly censored).

    Carl (@17), the (HP, FYI) laptop screens don’t appear “blacked out”. Though this is entirely guesswork, perhaps they are blank because they hadn’t been in use for several minutes. If so, perhaps this was during the time when there was some sort of communications black-out (to go by one of the narrative options). No idea.

    SK (@15), I realize most of your comment was tongue-in-cheek, but this photo of the Situation Room (the same room?) is perhaps more up your alley.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DonS (@16), it would only be “silly to spend a great deal of time and resources over-analyzing the photo” if it were staged. Again, I have a pretty good reason to believe it was not staged. You seem to have no particularly good reason to argue that it was. You also seem to be spending no small amount of time yourself on analyzing the photo. Also, I don’t think anyone here is arguing that the official White House photographer has “carte blanche to just snap and publicize photos at will” — though it would appear that the restrictions are more on the “publicizing” end of things (which is how this now-infamous photo got slightly censored).

    Carl (@17), the (HP, FYI) laptop screens don’t appear “blacked out”. Though this is entirely guesswork, perhaps they are blank because they hadn’t been in use for several minutes. If so, perhaps this was during the time when there was some sort of communications black-out (to go by one of the narrative options). No idea.

    SK (@15), I realize most of your comment was tongue-in-cheek, but this photo of the Situation Room (the same room?) is perhaps more up your alley.

  • DonS

    LOL @ tODD @ 20: Well, by all means, analyze away! :-) It certainly doesn’t harm anything as long as tax dollars aren’t being spent to hire the consultants to study each face and its reaction in a possibly re-enacted or staged photo.

  • DonS

    LOL @ tODD @ 20: Well, by all means, analyze away! :-) It certainly doesn’t harm anything as long as tax dollars aren’t being spent to hire the consultants to study each face and its reaction in a possibly re-enacted or staged photo.

  • Jonathan

    Delegitimizing Obama the man now includes delegitimizing photographs of Obama the man.

  • Jonathan

    Delegitimizing Obama the man now includes delegitimizing photographs of Obama the man.

  • Joe

    I am pleased by Ms. Clinton’s body language. She does not look weak or like she thinks we made a mistake. She looks like someone who realizes that the duties of her vocation required her to participate in (and by some accounts argue for the necessity of) killing of several people. I would be more disturbed to see a photo without any emotion.

  • Joe

    I am pleased by Ms. Clinton’s body language. She does not look weak or like she thinks we made a mistake. She looks like someone who realizes that the duties of her vocation required her to participate in (and by some accounts argue for the necessity of) killing of several people. I would be more disturbed to see a photo without any emotion.

  • DrJoan

    I don’t approve of Obama OR his policies. I would have voted against Hilary had she been the candidate–but I would be pleased that a woman made it to president (Just as I am pleased that a black man was elected.) I think Joe Biden is fruitless (almost literally!)
    But what I DO know is that each man and woman in this phote–staged or not (and I agree it likely is) is an American who cares something about the future of The United States. They basically have thankless jobs!
    I pray for them daily.

  • DrJoan

    I don’t approve of Obama OR his policies. I would have voted against Hilary had she been the candidate–but I would be pleased that a woman made it to president (Just as I am pleased that a black man was elected.) I think Joe Biden is fruitless (almost literally!)
    But what I DO know is that each man and woman in this phote–staged or not (and I agree it likely is) is an American who cares something about the future of The United States. They basically have thankless jobs!
    I pray for them daily.

  • Carl Vehse

    It has been reported (in one of many WH versions of the events) that for nearly half-hour in the Situation Room there was no video feed of the commando attack. Furthermore, while everyone else is intently watching the (blank?) screen at the other end of the room, USAF BG Webb, Joint Special Operations Command, seems busily working on some kind of computer while sitting in the large chair normally (and one would think especially for this occasion) occupied by the President, who seeems to have taken a smaller chair in the corner of the room.

    Now, that computer seems to have a shorter screen than the other labtops; the screen is also enclosed in a different housing than the other (HP-brand) laptops. Also, in between the two laptops (facing either Joe or Hillary) there appears to be a control module (with a small display facing the general); this module is similar to ones I’ve seen that are used for basic standard video screen and video-conferencing operations.

    If an analysis of the photograph is the topic of this thread, then I’d conjecture that it shows the general has temporarily taken over the chair in order to use the special “computer” to get the video link communications restored, and the photographer used the opportunity to take pictures while nothing was on the screen for him to block from someone’s view.

    Whether the person previously sitting at the chair accidentally pressed the wrong button or keys to cause the video disruption I’ll leave as conjecture for those who prefer to analyze facial expressions.

  • Carl Vehse

    It has been reported (in one of many WH versions of the events) that for nearly half-hour in the Situation Room there was no video feed of the commando attack. Furthermore, while everyone else is intently watching the (blank?) screen at the other end of the room, USAF BG Webb, Joint Special Operations Command, seems busily working on some kind of computer while sitting in the large chair normally (and one would think especially for this occasion) occupied by the President, who seeems to have taken a smaller chair in the corner of the room.

    Now, that computer seems to have a shorter screen than the other labtops; the screen is also enclosed in a different housing than the other (HP-brand) laptops. Also, in between the two laptops (facing either Joe or Hillary) there appears to be a control module (with a small display facing the general); this module is similar to ones I’ve seen that are used for basic standard video screen and video-conferencing operations.

    If an analysis of the photograph is the topic of this thread, then I’d conjecture that it shows the general has temporarily taken over the chair in order to use the special “computer” to get the video link communications restored, and the photographer used the opportunity to take pictures while nothing was on the screen for him to block from someone’s view.

    Whether the person previously sitting at the chair accidentally pressed the wrong button or keys to cause the video disruption I’ll leave as conjecture for those who prefer to analyze facial expressions.

  • Jonathan

    He is probably the classiest and most gracious President we have ever had. I’m over 50 and can attest that he is the most gracious and classiest I have ever known . Love this President.

  • Jonathan

    He is probably the classiest and most gracious President we have ever had. I’m over 50 and can attest that he is the most gracious and classiest I have ever known . Love this President.

  • SKPeterson

    Todd @20 – that photo is a little more like it. It probably is the same room as the people look to be the same. Although, maybe that was where they were supposed to be originally, then couldn’t get the video to work and moved to the small, cramped quarters in the photo in order to get video restored.

    Perhaps it is cramped because Obama appears to have extraordinarily large shoulders and a very small head.

  • SKPeterson

    Todd @20 – that photo is a little more like it. It probably is the same room as the people look to be the same. Although, maybe that was where they were supposed to be originally, then couldn’t get the video to work and moved to the small, cramped quarters in the photo in order to get video restored.

    Perhaps it is cramped because Obama appears to have extraordinarily large shoulders and a very small head.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    SK (@27), you’re the first person I can recall on this blog to have ever argued that Obama appears to have a small head …

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    SK (@27), you’re the first person I can recall on this blog to have ever argued that Obama appears to have a small head …

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Ahem. Anyhow, SK (@27), seems to me that those two photos are of the same room, taken from more or less opposite corners. The first photo (seen in Veith’s post) appears to be taken between the big video screen and the clock that reads Tripoli time (as seen in the second photo). Meanwhile, the second photo appears to be taken from behind the chair that Brig. Gen. Webb occupies in the first photo, in front of the Presidential seal.

    The table’s definitely the same. It just appears that the room has monitors lining only one side.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Ahem. Anyhow, SK (@27), seems to me that those two photos are of the same room, taken from more or less opposite corners. The first photo (seen in Veith’s post) appears to be taken between the big video screen and the clock that reads Tripoli time (as seen in the second photo). Meanwhile, the second photo appears to be taken from behind the chair that Brig. Gen. Webb occupies in the first photo, in front of the Presidential seal.

    The table’s definitely the same. It just appears that the room has monitors lining only one side.

  • Pete

    Jonathan @26 :

    So you slept through the Reagan years?

  • Pete

    Jonathan @26 :

    So you slept through the Reagan years?

  • Porcell

    Pete, Jonathan, also, hasn’t been paying attention to Obama’s crude, ubiquitous denigration of a former president, Bush, who has had the grace not to responded in the slightest to such lack of class.

  • Porcell

    Pete, Jonathan, also, hasn’t been paying attention to Obama’s crude, ubiquitous denigration of a former president, Bush, who has had the grace not to responded in the slightest to such lack of class.

  • Porcell

    Pardon, in the above it should have been respond.

  • Porcell

    Pardon, in the above it should have been respond.

  • Booklover

    It is great that Osama was finally caught, and I applaud Everyone involved in this great venture; yet I fail to be intrigued by this picture. But I have never been an “image” person.

    I for one love Westfall’s posts. I think he is hilarious.

    “You can run but you can’t hide.”–Joe Louis
    “You can run but you’ll just die tired.”–Navy SEALs

  • Booklover

    It is great that Osama was finally caught, and I applaud Everyone involved in this great venture; yet I fail to be intrigued by this picture. But I have never been an “image” person.

    I for one love Westfall’s posts. I think he is hilarious.

    “You can run but you can’t hide.”–Joe Louis
    “You can run but you’ll just die tired.”–Navy SEALs

  • Luca Filippi

    I have looked closely at Hilary Clinton’s book. The front cover states “TOP SECRET CODE VORFORY*”

    Not sure on the actuall word, can’t make it out..

  • Luca Filippi

    I have looked closely at Hilary Clinton’s book. The front cover states “TOP SECRET CODE VORFORY*”

    Not sure on the actuall word, can’t make it out..


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