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Sea burial fodder for conspiracy theories

The U.S. faces a quandary in proving the Al Qaeda's leader death without inflaming his supporters, and may release photos of his body. Skeptics include the mother of a Sept. 11 victim.

May 03, 2011|Matea Gold and David S. Cloud and Eryn Brown

WASHINGTON — Within hours of the raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistani compound, the CIA had used 21st century technology to get "a virtually 100% DNA match" on the dead man. But something out of another century may come back to haunt Washington: the Al Qaeda leader's burial at sea.

Conspiracy theorists on both the left and right were quick to insist that Bin Laden was either still alive or had been dead for years, pouncing on the government's decision to slide the body of the world's most wanted man off a board into the Arabian Sea.

As blogs hummed with allegations that the Obama administration had faked the middle-of-the-night raid, the Bin Laden "death hoax" threatened to replace questions about President Obama's citizenship as the latest Internet rumor to go viral.

"I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you're stupid," antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan posted on her Facebook page. "Just think to yourself -- they paraded Saddam's dead sons around to prove they were dead -- why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea?"

Infowars, the website of Libertarian radio host Alex Jones, was crammed with stories charging that the U.S. government had concocted the killing to justify a security crackdown. The Tea Party Nation website brimmed with indignant posts questioning the timing of Obama's announcement.

"Don't you think OBAMA needs something to assure his reelection," one commenter wrote.

Even a relative of one of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks voiced skepticism, citing the burial at sea.

"Is it true or false? I don't know," said Stella Olender of Chicago, whose daughter Christine died at the World Trade Center. "To me that seems strange, that they disposed of it and no one [besides] whoever was right there knows what happened."

The conspiracy theories spoke to the quandary facing the U.S.: proving the Al Qaeda leader's death without inflaming his supporters and the broader Muslim world. Because of that concern, U.S. officials were considering the merits of releasing gory photos of Bin Laden taken after he was shot.

The burial, which was carried out from aboard the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson in the northern part of the Arabian Sea, was necessary because arrangements couldn't be made with any country to bury Bin Laden within 24 hours, as is the general Muslim practice, administration officials said. But a senior military officer said the U.S. also wanted to avoid having a grave become a shrine that would attract his followers.

Administration officials insisted Monday that there was no question who was killed in the Pakistani raid. Along with being visually identified on the scene by U.S. operatives, Bin Laden was identified by name by a woman believed to be one of his wives, according to a senior intelligence official. On Sunday evening, CIA specialists compared photos of the body with known photos of Bin Laden, determining with 95% certainty that they were one and the same.

On Monday morning, the CIA and other agencies conducted an "initial DNA analysis," comparing a sample taken from the body with DNA samples from several Bin Laden family members. The results, the official said, gave them "a virtually 100% DNA match."

The intelligence community has been collecting DNA samples from Bin Laden relatives for years, according to another U.S. intelligence official. Because the family is so big, obtaining samples was not difficult, officials said, particularly from relatives who denounce Bin Laden's activities.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent, confirmed that the government had more than one source of DNA.

"Through the DNA testing and other things, it is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was Osama bin Laden, based on the science," he said.

Dr. Frederick Bieber, a medical geneticist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, said it is possible for genetic kinship analysis to be done quickly, particularly if profiles of relatives have already been completed.

"Often it can be done overnight, and in high-profile forensic investigations, it often is," said Bieber, who declined to comment on the particulars of this case.

The administration was still weighing whether to release graphic photos of Bin Laden's bullet-pocked body to put the rumors of a hoax to rest. (A photo, purportedly of Bin Laden's corpse, circulating online was determined to be fake.)

"We are going to do everything we can to make sure that nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden," said John Brennan, Obama's top counter-terrorism advisor. "And so, therefore, the releasing of information and whether that includes photographs -- this is something to be determined."

Some congressional leaders suggested such a move was necessary.

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