Nonverbal Behavior Expert & Author, Former FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro on the White House Situation Room Photo from the Bin Laden Mission: What do the Faces Tell Us?

The situation room photograph released by the White House last week, of President Obama and key members of his administration presumably watching the mission resulting in the death of Osama bin Laden, is likely to be published in history books as an iconic representation of society’s ongoing battle with terrorism.

As shown in this photo, what do the reactions of President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Michael Mullen, etc. tell us?

We wanted to gain greater insight into what the expressions of the individuals in the photograph might be telling us. For some answers, we went to non-verbal language expert Joe Navarro. For 25 years, Mr. Navarro worked for the FBI as an agent and was a supervisor in the areas of counter-intelligence and terrorism. He also has spent many years studying nonverbal behavior. Navarro was kind enough to give us an almost 25 minute interview providing detailed analysis of this now iconic photograph. Featured columnist Jay Bildstein joined me for the interview, which is well worth listening to and helps school us in understanding nonverbal behavior.

Listen to the entire CYInterview with Joe Navarro:

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First, Joe Navarro tells us about his FBI background:

“For 25 years I was a special agent with the FBI. Most of that spent within the national security side of the house chasing spies and terrorists and then for the last 15 years of my career, I was involved in behavioral profiling and doing behavioral analysis for the national security division.”

Former Special Agent Navarro explains to us what his initial reactions to the photo were. Specifically, how he perceived that President Obama, as Commander and Chief, had given up his seat at the head of the table to a military officer, who appears to be busy working.

“This iconic photograph lends itself to the study of nonverbal communication because non-verbals, it includes body language…but it also encompasses this broader area of body language. What struck me at first was that the President of the United States had actually ceded his seat to what appears to be a one star general sitting at the head of the table or an Air Force officer so that he can actually manage the technical aspects of what’s going on…No doubt having to do something very important and the President was actually willing to cede his seat so that he could accomplish this more comfortably in spite of The President’s position.”

Mr. Navarro believes the photo was taken early on in the mission in Pakistan and is prior to the death of Osama bin Laden. The former member of the FBI provides us with some interesting body language analysis.

“This is an all likelihood as the event in Pakistan is about to take place, is starting out. This is not at the tail end of it. You can tell this from the non-verbals. You see the obvious tension in the faces…You see this with a lot of the people in the room. The arms are at their side, really restricted. This often happens when something tense is about to happen. We stop our arm movement. You see other people cross their arms and so forth. But definitely from the facial features of just about everybody, you see the tension in the room. I think everyone there is showing the severity of what’s going on by their body language…This is something of deep significance, very tough to fake these behaviors…If I was having to testify to this, I would say this is not at the end of the operation. I think once they would’ve received the information that the troops were safe and that whatever targets had to be neutralized were neutralized, their body behavior would be much, much different.”

Joe Navarro

Here is some analysis from former Special Agent Navarro on Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who are with President Obama in the situation room:

On Secretary of Defense Roberts Gates:

“He’s experienced this in many ways. You see the tension in his face. You can tell it by his lips, how narrow they are. Yet, he seems in some way quite, looking at this though like, ok, I’ve been through this before. I’m not really worried about this, but it’s something that’s extremely serious.”

On Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

“You see this very iconic posture of her hand covering her mouth and you see the eyes and this really demonstrates, it’s a universal behavior of deep concern over what’s going on. This is obviously a monumental event and you can see it in the body posture there, the elbow is tucked in, the mouth is covered and we see this around the world when people are witnessing something that is a precarious or dangerous and so forth.”

Finally, of all the attention this photograph has received, there has been some discussion specifically about Secretary of State Clinton covering her face. In the image oriented, negative campaign driven world in which we live, it is conceivable that if Hillary Clinton does run for President again, the photo could potentially be used in a negative ad attempting to use her nonverbal language to show she does not possess strong leadership ability. Mr. Navarro says Secretary of State Clinton’s nonverbal behavior is not that of fear, even if some might think it is.

“Well, you never know if it will be used against her because the unknowing can claim anything. This is not behavior of fear. This is behavior of concern as other people are demonstrating. One of the things that we do when we are concerned about something we’re watching is we touch our face. Now sometimes we touch it briefly and sometimes we massage our face and so forth. For all we know, this might be the fact and you can see it in her eyes, she may have been up for 18-19 hours and she’s’ at this point just very tired and that could be part of it too, but this is not the kind of behavior that suggests oh, this is way out of my league. This is just a normal response to what is being observed and it’s very natural. I’m sure that at some point throughout the night we will have seen this behavior on everybody in this room, but just at different times.”

Joe Navarro is the author of What Everybody is Saying and Louder Than Words. You can find out more information about his books and purchase them at his official website

The White House Situation Room photo includes:

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. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Binken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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