Anomalies in Trump situation room photo spark online conspiracy theories it was staged

Harry Cockburn

In 2011, 10 years after the terrorist attacks in New York which destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, the architect of the hijackings, Osama bin Laden, was killed by US special forces in a raid in Pakistan.

The US Navy Seals carrying out the raid relayed live footage to the White House, and a photograph of president Barack Obama alongside his national security team witnessing the operation was used on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

At the time, numerous conspiracy theories emerged, including that the photo was a fake, that bin Laden had not been killed, or that he’d been killed several years earlier and his body frozen and held by the US.

The death over the weekend of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who blew himself up in Syria during a raid by US special forces has seen the release by the White House of a photograph of Donald Trump similarly witnessing the live operation.

The White House

And this one has also sparked online accusations of fakery.

But this time, one of the prominent sceptics is the photographer who took the famous Obama “situation room” image himself – Pete Souza.

There are noteworthy observations to be made about the photo released by the White House.

Mr Trump is seen sitting at the head of the table in the centre of the photograph, surrounded by his team who are wearing smart suits and ties and are mostly looking towards the camera. On the table there is a mass of ethernet cables, many of which appear not to be plugged into anything.

The image is in stark contrast to the 2011 photograph, in which Mr Obama is not the focus of the overall image, and in which the national security team, dressed in less formal attire, appear tense and are focused on witnessing what is unfolding on an unseen screen out of shot.

Members of Barack Obama’s national security team in the Situation Room during the operation that killed Osama bin Laden (White House)

The differences have led many critics to accuse Mr Trump of staging the photograph, rather than it being a true depiction of what the situation room looked like at the time of the raid.

But is it really staged?

In a tweet, which has since been favourited over 50,000 times and retweeted almost 20,000 times in less than 24 hours, former White House photographer Mr Souza wrote: “The raid, as reported, took place at 3:30PM Washington time. The photo, as shown in the camera IPTC data, was taken at “17:05:24”.”

He also retweeted a CNN commentator, David Axelrod, who posted both the 2011 and the 2019 pictures and wrote: “Which of these pictures looks real and which looks posed?”

This has clearly led many people to infer the time of the picture and the time of the raid don’t match up. However, this is not necessarily the case, as the raid likely lasted for hours.

Mr Souza later tweeted: “Just to be clear, I didn’t say it was staged. Trump himself said he didn’t arrive to the Situation Room until ‘around 5pm’. So it’s definitely possible the photo was taken during the raid.”

Furthermore, reports from the Associated Press of the raid in Syria said the attack had taken place after midnight, local time, which corresponds to 6pm in Washington DC – matching the time of the photograph.

Commentators online have also suggested three people in the photograph, including Mr Trump, are wearing exactly the same suit and tie combinations as they had been two days previously, leading to speculation the photograph could have been posed two days in advance of the raid. This is entirely unproven.

In an unusual press conference following the raid, Mr Trump described in detail the death of the Isis leader, who he said had detonated a suicide vest after fleeing into a tunnel, “whimpering and crying and screaming” while being chased by US military dogs. The blast apparently killed him and three of his children.

“He was a sick and depraved man,” Mr Trump said. “He died like a dog. He died like a coward.”

But despite Mr Trump’s strong statement over the death of the leader of a movement he’d repeatedly said America had “100 per cent” defeated, the Pentagon has reportedly said the raid on al-Baghdadi’s residence had been successful “in spite of” Mr Trump’s actions, rather than because of them, The New York Times reports.