Those claiming that bin Laden had a strong association with the US and the CIA will often pull out these photos, saying they show bin Laden with Carter's National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
We've seen captions like "here's some photos of the Trilateral co-FOUNDER with his favorite terrorist" (source), "President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski visiting 'his boy', Osama Bin Laden, in training with the Pakistan Army, 1981" (source), and "Brzezinski and Tim Osman (Osama bin Laden) discuss the string of Jihads that Zbigniew never regrets" (source).
But where is the evidence that this is bin Laden? It's curiously lacking. All we have are assertions, and no explanations for the problems with these photos.
Take the height of the bearded man in the photos, for instance. The FBI's Most Wanted poster for bin Laden says he's "6' 4" to 6' 6"" tall; looking at other sources, 6' 4" seems to be the concensus view. If this man is bin Laden, then he looks to be the same height as Brzezinski, who must also be very tall - right?
Well, maybe not. We've not seen a definitive height, but from photos he appears to be fractionally taller than Jimmy Carter (5' 9.5"), and a little smaller than Reagan (6' 1", see here) - a very average height (see below, second from the right).
Even if Brzezinski is 6' tall, he'd still be 4" shorter than bin Laden, who should look significantly taller in those photos. (As an example, Kissinger in the above photo was 4" smaller than Reagan, and the height difference there is extremely obvious.) But they look a very similar height, suggesting that this isn't bin Laden.
Another problem acknowledged in a caption above is that the bearded man is in a Pakistani army uniform. When was bin Laden in Pakistan's army? We've yet to see anyone show that he was, even suggest that he was, other than for the purposes of supporting claims about this photograph.
We could theorise that he was an important person, and being given some kind of military training, to help him in Afghanistan. But why, then, is he in the photo, and anonymous? If he's important for some positive reason, why wasn't this flagged up to the press who were watching? If he's a secret, why was he placed in front of the press for some pointless photo opportunity? It doesn't make sense.
And what about the date of the photo, February 3rd 1980? Bin Laden wasn't yet a person of note, he hadn't established the Maktab al-Khadamat, and al Qaeda was years away. Why would he be of any importance to Brzezinski, why would they be having talks at all?
Of course none of this can provide a definitive answer. There are always those who ignore all doubts, demand that we prove conclusively that it isn't bin Laden (forgetting that they don't have a jot of evidence that it is). So perhaps it's best to simply end with the real source and story of the photo.
On the web it's variously dated to "late 70's", 1979, 1981, "late 1980's", and so on. However, we found the specific details on the Corbis website:
And, given that clue, we were able to retrieve press stories on what was happening.
The Washington Post/ February 4, 1980, Monday, Final Edition/
'Zbig' Holds His Fire at Khyber Pass
By Stuart Auerbach, Washington Post Foreign Service/ DATELINE: KHYBER PASS, Pakistan, Feb. 3, 1980
President Carter's national security adviser peered resolutely with gun in hand at Soviet controlled Afghanistan from the top of a Pakistani military outpost high above the strategic Khyber Pass.
It looked like a scene from a late-night Grade B television movie called "Zbig at the Khyber Pass" as Zbigneiw Brzezinski, high White House aide, hesitated for a second and then declined an offer to fire the Chinese-made light machine gun toward Afghanistan. Instead he invited the Pakistani soldier at the gunpoint to shoot the weapon.
The soldier got off one shot and the gun jammed.
After clearing it, he squeezed off a fast round. But the recoil knocked the soldier back into Brzezinski and the gun started spraying bullets wildly out the gunport.
"Thank God the Russians haven't started firing back," said a Pakistani officer accompanying the Brezezinski tour.
The madcap scene at the old British-built stone picket post -- really a tiny fort perched on top of a hillock two miles from the Afghan border -- climaxed a day's tour of Pakistan's frontier.
Brzezinski had asked to be taken from the Khyber Rifles officers mess in Landi Kotal to one of a string of pickets posts overlooking the Khyber Pass, the route of invading armies since 1600 B.C. when the Aryans moved down from Central Asis into what is now India.
"This would be smashed right away?" he asked Lt. Gen. Fazle Haq, the military commander and civil governor of the Northwest Frontier Province.
"In the first engagement the artillery would knock down all these," said Fazle, pointing to the post he was standing at and others down the pass. "They are all right for observation and for keeping track of tribals, but not for modern warfare."
Brzezinski clearly enjoyed the chance to see at first and the frontier he had been talking about from Washington since the Soviet Union moved more than 80,000 troops into Afghanistan late last year.
As he strode up the rocky hillside to the picket post, he opened his U.S. Army parka to show a highly ornamental dagger stuck in his waistband. The dagger, the type used by tribesmen in this area, had been presented to him at lunch by Fazle.
Earlier, he walked down a line of tribal chiefs who each placed a garland of flowers around his neck. Before long Brezezinski, up to his ears in flowers, quipped, "Friendship is a heavy burden, especially around the neck."
The tour started with an early morning helicopter visit to a remote refugee camp in the Kurram Agency, a finger of Pakistan that juts into Afghanistan halfway between Jalalabad and Gardez. The camp, known as Sadda, was 12 miles from the Afghan border.
The poorly clad refugees -- mostly old men, women and children with no men of fighting age, visible -- told Brzezinski through a translator that they had been driven from Afghanistan within the past six months because the Soviet-dominated government has attacked their mullahs, destroyed their mosques and villages and attempted to change their fundamentalist Islamic religious traditions.
They now live in tents with 40 cents a day to feed themselves.
There were no weapons present in the camp, really a straggly collection of tents in a barren spot in the rugged terrain, except those of the security guards. Officials said the weapons that tribesmen always carry had been taken away of the Brzezinski visit.
One tribal leader acknowledged that young men come and go across the open border to fight in Afghanistan.
Brzezinski was careful not to promise military assistance to the rebels, but he told them of America's support for the efforts and said, "The entire world is outraged," by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher added, "the American people admire your fight for freedom and believe in the long run you will presevere."
As if rehearsed, the refugees replied in chorus, "Inshallah," God willing.
This isn't a leaked photo from some secretive sessions with bin Laden, then - it came from a photo opportunity that hit the papers the very next day. And given that the bearded man appears to be the wrong height to be bin Laden, and there's no reason to believe bin Laden was ever in the Pakistani army, and it makes no sense that this soldier would be having important discussions with Brzezinski, and bin Laden wasn't significant at this time anyway, we'd suggest the most likely alternative is the one presented here: the bearded man was just another Pakistani soldier.