ROME – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday she has "no idea" what she and the rest of President Barack Obama's national security team were watching at the precise moment that a photographer snapped what has become an iconic image of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
"Those were 38 of the most intense minutes," Clinton said of the raid on bin Laden's compound by U.S. Navy SEALs. "I have no idea what any of us were looking at at that particular millisecond when the picture was taken."
The photo was taken by the White House photographer Sunday night as Obama and his national security team monitored the assault. Clinton is covering her mouth with her right hand, but she said Thursday that the gesture might not convey any special significance.
"I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs," she said. "So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever."
The story behind the photograph has been a subject of intense curiosity, but U.S. officials have refused to discuss details of what exactly was happening when it was taken, saying that could compromise intelligence efforts and capabilities.
Nonetheless, Clinton said bin Laden's death "sent an unmistakable message about the strength and the resolve of the international community to stand against extremism and those who perpetuate it."
"I think our resolve is even stronger after bin Laden's death because we know it will have an impact on those who are on the battlefield in Afghanistan," she said. She and other officials have expressed hope that al-Qaida sympathizers and other militants may now be more inclined to give up violence and rejoin Afghan society.
Clinton said U.S. plans to begin drawing down American forces in Afghanistan in July will continue apace even as she acknowledged that the battle against terrorism was far from over.
"Let us not forget that the battle to stop al-Qaida and its affiliates does not end with one death," she said. "We have to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan but around the world. It is especially important that there be no doubt that those who pursue a terrorist agenda, the criminals who indiscriminately murder innocent people, will be brought to justice."
Many in the U.S. have questioned Pakistan's reliability as an ally, given that bin Laden was found hiding in plain sight in a military garrison town outside Islamabad. Lawmakers are questioning U.S. aid to Pakistan, something the Obama administration has said is vital to war on terror.
Clinton maintained the U.S. must remain engaged with Pakistan.
"It is not always an easy relationship," she said. "But on the other hand, it is a productive one for both of our countries and we are going to continue to cooperate between our governments, our militaries, our law enforcement agencies."
Clinton spoke during a press conference with Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. She was in Rome for a meeting of the Libyan Contact Group, representatives of 22 nations and five international organizations who are discussing ways to support the rebels fighting longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.