DNA and Saddam Hussein
With Lawrence Kobilinsky
Prof., Forensic Science
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Wednesday, April 15, 2003; 1 p.m. ET
Gen. Tommy R. Franks revealed last Sunday that the U.S. military has obtained a DNA sample that would enable forensics experts to identify the bodies of Saddam Hussein and his two sons if they are found. U.S. officials in Washington disclosed that Hussein's half-brother, Barzan Ibrahim Hasan, had been apprehended late last week in northern Iraq and that he could provide "a walking source of DNA" because Hasan and Hussein share the same mother.
Forensics expert Lawrence Kobilinsky, Ph.D., was online Wednesday, April 16 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss the procedure scientists would undertake to determine whether bodies found buried underneath the rubble of a bulding in the Mansour neighborhood of Baghdad bombed last Wednesday were in fact Saddam Hussein and his sons.
Kobilinsky has served as consultant to CBS and other networks on issues related to forensic science as well as advisor to the U.S. State Dept. He has also served as advisor to criminal labs in several countries including Mexico, China, Brazil and others.
A transcript follows.
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Lawrence Kobilinsky: Much of what I am going to discuss today deals with the forensic science approaches to identify a body or body parts. The process is referred to as "individualization." The individualization (or identification) of a person can be fairly simple depending on the state of the person in question. Is there an intact body complete with head, arms, legs, etc? Or is the body in parts or even in fragments? How preserved is the body (or its parts). What are the prevailing environmental conditions? Under certain conditions, individualization can be difficult and sometimes just not possible. A lot depends on the particular findings in a particular case. Many thought that Saddam Hussein was killed during the opening bombings of the war on March 20th. Apparently, he survived this early attempt. Then came the bombings of April 7 which many think did achieve the goal of killing Saddam. Some believe that Saddam escaped and is hiding someplace in Syria. So ... we really don't know whether he is alive or not. But if we learn that there are bodies at the site of the second bombing attack, then we must do whatever is possible to determine if it is him and his two sons. This is the nature of the discussion that follows.
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Although at the present, we do not know if Saddam is dead or alive, we do have the tools and scientific methods at hand to determine if a body or body parts are his. In this way, we may be able to say with scientific certainty that not only has the regime been ended but so has Saddam's life. Forensic science is used to determine facts and truth. It uses the techniques and priciples of the basic sciences to solve legal questions. It deals with the investigation of evidence. Evidence is first identified and then individualized (to determine its source). By comparing known (exemplar) specimens with unknown (questioned specimens) one can decide that there is an inclusion or exclusion and in this way interpret the nature of the evidence. I believe that despite the deterioration of the biological material that we may find at the site of the second bombing, we will be able to determine if he was or was not present. The public wants to know and I believe that they will know what happened at that site.
washingtonpost.com: Dr. Kobilinsky, thank you for being with us. Can you explain the DNA matching process and what authorities would have to have in order to identify Saddam Hussein?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Forensic DNA analysis is useful for identifying individuals. It requires two specimens to compare: 1. an unknown and 2. an exemplar. The specimens are analyzed at a number of different genetic markers or sites (loci) within the human genome and after these genes are identified either a match (inclusion) or a non-match (exclusion) is declared. For the analysis of body parts, one would have to first isolate DNA from the tissue and then analyze it at the same sites as the exemplar (known specimen). Then one can determine if there is a match or not. That in brief is what is required to determine if a body (or body part) represents the remains of Saddam.
Washington, D.C.: You want to talk about 'individualization', fine. But why drag Saddam Hussein into the foray? Reports from the British media tell us that the missiles completely missed their target on April 7 and destroyed adjoining residences. The only people who died in that strike were civilians unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity at that time. Moreover, what idiot believes that Saddam Hussein would gather in an unprotected venue with both his sons, when the U.S. forces are just several miles away. Is too much emphasis on untested scientific methods dumbing the American people? The British seem to be absolutely certain that Saddam Hussein is alive.
Lawrence Kobilinsky: You make the argument that there is too much emphasis on science. However, science knows no politics. It is used to establish facts. If Saddam and his two sons were killed as a result of that bombing on April 7th, we will know it. If they escaped or were never there, we will know that as well. War is always a horror and innocents unfortunately are often victims. Nobody favors harming civilians. Nobody favors war. But sometimes war is justified. I am speaking in very general terms now. My concern is that the science is done properly and that the public learn the facts.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think the bodies would be decomposed by now?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: From the moment a person dies there are a number of degradative processes that take place. Autolysis reflects a self destruction that takes place within all of our cells and tissues. Environmental agents also are at work degrading and decomposing the body. Such is life and such is nature. There is no question that bodies can be preserved under certain conditions (Cold and dry environment or in the water, high salinity, In the ground, fungi will sometimes prevent bacterial growth and decomposition). There is no question that the bodies in question are in a state of decomposition and that the decomposition will progress until there is only skeleton. Even the very hardy DNA molecule will degrade over time.
Vienna, Va.: I understand that the DNA that the military supposedly has is that of a half-brother of Saddam Hussein. Will that work in the DNA analysis?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Good question. A half brother (sharing the same mother) would be expected to have half the genes of the mother and thus two half-brothers would share (on average) half of their genes. The analysis would be highly suggestive but not conclusive and thus, I would suggest other DNA methods to confirm identity. There are two methods known as Y STRs and mitochondrial DNA analysis. A combination of these tests with the following specimens might work: Half brother, cousin, 3 daughters, 2 sons. Having all of these relative would make life easier for identification specialists who want to draw absolute certain conclusions.
Bethesda, Md. : Is a DNA test an absolute identifier?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: DNA testing is generally followed by a statistical calculation. In other words, one can say that the unknown matches the exemplar (known) specimen and that the genetic profile developed is very rare. In fact you would expect to find it in 1 out of 5 billion people. The "weight" of the evidence is provided by the statistic. If the statistic becomes 1 out of 5 trillion, I would call that an absolute identification. Despite the fact that we are compelled to used probability and statistics, we essentially have an absolute identification. Now if the statistic were calculated as 1 in 1 million, then I would tell you that there are probably 265 or so people that share that profile in the United States. This is no absolute identification.
Washington, D.C.: So it could require getting specimens from another relative or more?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: In identifying an individual through relatives, it must be remembered that the closer the relationship, the more genes that are shared. An identical twin has the same DNA as his sibling. Brothers will share the same mitochondrial DNA and the same Y chromosome DNA but will share only 1/2 their genes. Cousins will share only 1/16th of their genes. Siblings from a marriage will share the same mitochondrial DNA as their mother. Relationships can be very helpful. This is how paternity cases are solved. Of course, I would much rather have a known and an unknown specimen and perform the nuclear DNA STR tests.
Alexandria, Va.: How long would it take to do the entire DNA investigation?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: The samples would have to be transported back to AFDIL (Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory) or maybe even the FBI lab. This will take some time. The samples will be extracted and DNA will be isolated. The time it takes to isolate DNA depends on the specific sample (Bone or hair takes longer than white blood cells. The samples are quantitation, amplified, detected, profiles compared, and statistics calculated. This can take a couple of days. If mitochondrial DNA testing is being done, the identification could take a week or two.
Washington, D.C.: If a match were made and it was determined scientifically that it was in fact Saddam Hussein that was killed in the bomb blast, do you think the American public would believe it? Would there still be doubt?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: You ask if the citizenry of the United States would trust a report that Saddam is dead. I believe that the public has great respect for science and that indeed they would accept the findings. I also believe that if there is the slightest doubt of his death, no agency would dare report on his demise. It would destroy credibility for that agency and therefore it would never happen. If a report is made that Saddam is dead, you will be able to trust that report. Dead men don't walk.
Falls Church, Va.: Did Saddam Hussein's half brother willingly give the authorities a sample of his DNA?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: I don't know if Saddam's half brother gave a sample willingly but remember that all we would need is a cup that he drank from or a cigarette butt that he discarded or a toothbrush that he used, or a bandage that he may have on a wound. Any of these would be good exemplar specimens that could be used to determine if there is a match or not.
Harrisburg, Pa.: It is disappointing whenever we hear that a DNA test was "inconclusive". What are the main causes that render such a test inconclusive?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Even DNA can be degraded by fragmentation or by bacterial enzyme action or by environmental factors such as sunlight. There are two alternate conclusions that the analyst can come to besides stating that there is a match or a non-match. The test can have negative results or the DNA can be insufficient in quantity. The first can come from extreme degrading of the molecule. The second can arise from small sample size.
Washington, D.C.: Since the U.S. has Saddam's DNA, could others have it too? What's the possibility that in many future years ahead someone will attempt to clone Saddam Hussein -- sort of a Boys from Baghdad plot?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Cloning is a very exciting concept. It worked on Dolly the sheep and on a number of other large animal species. However, it is not without problems and human cloning cannot be successfully performed at this time. It is fascinating and clear to me that in the future, the technique will become refined to the point that success will be an expected outcome. And now you raise the idea that preserved cells might be used in the future to form another Saddam. I can tell you that even if that were to take place, that the cloned person might look, talk, and have certain behaviours like Saddam, but that this would be an entirely new person, with different experiences, different influences and would not be a copy of Saddam Hussein, the dictator and killer. It would be a Saddam look a like who might develop into an adult who is charitable and kind and good. Sounds odd but it is true!
Arlington, Va.: This sounds like CSI. Do you watch that show?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Yes, when I can watch, I enjoy CSI. We know that this is entertainment and real life is quite different than what is depicted on the show. The case of Laci Peterson is real life. A 27-year-old woman, missing from her home since December 24, 2002 and found washed up on the shoreline of San Francisco Bay with a baby as well. This is real life. Identification of the bodies will not take place easily. It will take time and unfortunately, we may never know what the cause of death was. The head and feet were missing and identification will require extensive DNA testing (mitochondrial).
Silver Spring, Md.: Regarding the discovered bodies in California, why is it going to take week or weeks for positive ID?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: The extended length of time to identify the bodies is because mitochondrial DNA requires a couple of weeks to complete. Remember that this is a criminal matter and that the analysis can't be completed until all the "i"s are dotted and the "t"s are crossed. There will be a ream of paperwork generated and the analysis will be checked and rechecked before they come forward with their findings. There is no head, and fingerprints are gone (washerwoman effect of long term submersion) so DNA is the only way to go on this matter.
Detroit, Mich.: I have yet to hear that any human remains have actually been collected at the site of the bombings. Is there anything to test yet?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: I have not heard about any human remains collected. We will have to wait and see. It is possible that testing is underway as we type. On the other hand there may not be any samples collected as of this time. I would suspect that reporters would let us know if they were digging at that site.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Dr. Kobilinsky, if the body of Hussein has been burned, and there are only bone fragments remaining (and assuming dental records cannot be obtained), might there still be enough DNA left to make an identification? How much of a specimen would be needed to do the testing?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: This is an extraordinarily good question. If the body was burned which is a good possibility given the extent of the bombing, and if there are only bone fragments remaining, it is quite possible that a DNA typing result will be inconclusive. We won't know until we try to isolate DNA. The PCR procedure which is the basis for all current DNA tests requires around 1 nanogram (one billionth of a gram) to produce successful results. Testing might work if we can obtain a bit less than this amount but if we can't extract 0.5-1.0 nanograms it is unlikely that we will have a result. This quantity is miniscule. If you consider the dimensions of the head of a pin and imagine a small blood droplet that size, and also consider that only the white cells contain DNA, then you can still get good results and you can see how highly sensitive these tests are. Nevertheless we can't do miracles and it is possible that the evidentiary specimen will be so compromised that no testing will yield the answer we are looking for.
Odenton, Md. : Where would this DNA testing take place or would it be kept highly secret?
Lawrence Kobilinsky: There is no secret about where the testing is done. The Armed Forces has established its own DNA laboratory and is on a par with the FBI laboratory. Testing will most likely be done at AFDIL (Armed Forces DNA Identificatin Laboratory).
Lawrence Kobilinsky: Thank you for all of your splended questions. I have tried to answer them carefully and correctly. Perhaps Saddam is alive, perhaps he is dead. Speculation and even eyewitness testimony will not suffice to answer this question that the whole world is asking. It is through science that the facts will come out. I am proud to be a forensic scientist and am happy that technology can serve the public by providing important information that we as citizens need to know.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.