WASHINGTON — The U.S. government renewed a request for DNA material from relatives of Osama bin Laden after a CIA missile struck a group of unidentified men in Afghanistan this month, a U.S. official said Wednesday.
In disclosing the request, the government acknowledged for the first time that it does not have a sample of DNA from a Bin Laden relative. Such a sample would be crucial to the United States' ability to determine whether the Al Qaeda leader was killed by that CIA strike or any other bombing raid in Afghanistan.
News of the request renewed speculation that Bin Laden may have been among three people killed by a Hellfire missile fired Feb. 4 from an unmanned Predator spy plane operated by the CIA.
Officials said the missile hit a "tall figure" around whom other men appeared to be gathering in the rugged Zhawar Kili area of eastern Afghanistan.
The agency said the group had been under surveillance and was moving in an area known to be an Al Qaeda hide-out, but officials later expressed doubt that Bin Laden had been hit. Subsequent news reports from the region even suggested that those hit might have been scrap collectors rather than Al Qaeda operatives.
It took days for U.S. soldiers to reach the scene, and Pentagon officials have said there were no identifiable remains there. But human tissue samples were taken from the area, and a U.S. official said Wednesday that the samples would be compared to any DNA material supplied by Bin Laden's relatives.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, cautioned that there is no new intelligence to suggest that Bin Laden was killed in the strike. "Some people are trying to reach that conclusion," he said. "But that's not one I would draw."
He said there is no new information to contradict recent statements by Pentagon officials and members of Congress that Bin Laden is believed to have survived the U.S. aerial campaign and to still be hiding along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"There's been interest in getting [DNA material] for quite some time," the official said. The scant remains left behind in Zhawar Kili, he said, merely "renewed interest in getting this kind of material."
He declined to specify how the DNA request had been conveyed to the Bin Laden family, other than to say that it had been made through intermediaries, not directly by U.S. government officials.
Nor would he explain why the government has been unable to obtain the samples. Bin Laden has at least 20 children and dozens of siblings--some of whom have lived in the United States and have publicly repudiated the Al Qaeda leader.
Most of Bin Laden's relatives reside in Saudi Arabia, where his late father built a construction empire. Bin Laden's Saudi citizenship was revoked in the mid-1990s.
Experts said DNA can be culled from almost any human tissue, including skin or hair. But in paternity disputes and criminal cases, courts generally rely on blood samples or cheek cells swabbed from the mouth.
Separately Wednesday, President Bush nominated John L. Helgerson to be inspector general of the CIA, the agency's top internal watchdog post. Helgerson, currently chairman of the National Intelligence Council, must be confirmed by the Senate.