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Clinton on Situation Room photo: It's possible I was preventing a cough

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with 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, Sunday, May 1, 2011, in Washington. AP Photo/The White House, Pete Souza

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says she has "no idea" what she was looking at when a photographer snapped the now-iconic image of her, President Obama, and other top national security officials during a Situation Room briefing on the Osama bin Laden raid - but she suspects her expressive demeanor in the photograph may have had less to do with national security than one might think.

"I am somewhat sheepishly concerned that it was my preventing one of my early spring allergic coughs," she told reporters in Rome on Thursday. "So, it may have no great meaning whatsoever."

The arresting photograph, taken by White House photographer Pete Souza while Mr. Obama and his national security team monitored the tense military operation that resulted in bin Laden's death, depicts Clinton staring intently ahead, her hand covering her mouth.

In a series of interviews about the image conducted by Women's Wear Daily, a number of top photo editors cited Clinton's expression as the most powerful element of the photograph.

"The Hillary Clinton expression is the one that holds the photograph fully," said Kira Pollack, Time's director of photography. "The reaction of her hand over her face. Her eyes. Clearly, she's reacting to something she's watching."

"To me, the whole image is about Hillary," Pollack added. "In some ways, she holds the image. You look at her first, and then you look at everyone else."

And Scott Hall, director of photography at Newsweek, ascribed much of the picture's mystique to Clinton's expression: "The mystery of what's happening off camera is captured wholly in the expression on Hillary's face," he told WWD.

Clinton, however, is not so sure.

"Those were 38 of the most intense minutes," she said, of the raid. "I have no idea what any of us were looking at that particular millisecond when the picture was taken."

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