U.S. personnel washed, wrapped and prayed over the body of Osama bin Laden before dumping it off an aircraft carrier and into the Arabian Sea. But even as the Obama administration worked to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities over the manner of bin Laden’s burial, it stopped short of releasing visual or forensic proof that he had, in fact, been killed.
John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, said the government had not decided when or whether it would make public photographs taken of bin Laden after he was gunned down at his hideout in Pakistan. He suggested that officials were still balancing whether the images were more likely to inflame public sentiment around the world or to erase doubts that bin Laden was really dead.
“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,” Brennan told reporters.
U.S. officials said they confirmed bin Laden’s identity in multiple ways, including photographs, a DNA test and a testimonial from one of his wives who survived the raid on the compound.
Members of Congress said bin Laden’s corpse was badly disfigured, making it all the more difficult to decide whether to release images, particularly of his face.
“Unless there’s an acknowledgment by people in al-Qaeda that bin Laden is dead, it may be necessary to release the pictures, as gruesome as they undoubtedly will be, because he’s been shot in the head, to quell any doubts that this somehow is a ruse,” said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.).
Some television network producers said the images might be too graphic to broadcast anyway. ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said one option might be to air a photo from a distance, just to give a clear indication that the dead man was bin Laden.
U.S. national security officials declined to say whether they conducted an autopsy. But some experts without direct knowledge of the case said they doubted that such a procedure was necessary.
“Photography, yes; DNA, of course; fingerprinting, of course,” said a former Special Operations physician, now retired, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. “But there are more reasons not to do an autopsy in this case than to do one. Certainly it is not necessary to establish identity.”
Bin Laden’s health was the subject of long-distance prognostication over the years. An autopsy would give the military an opportunity to test the accuracy of its inferences.
Dale C. Smith, a professor of medical history at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, said he too thought “the forensic work will be confined to identification,” with blood samples, cell scrapings from inside the mouth and perhaps dental X-rays taken.
Hours after bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in a firefight with U.S. Navy SEALs, his corpse was flown to Afghanistan to be identified through DNA analysis, then transported to the USS Carl Vinson, an aircraft carrier in the northern Arabian Sea.
A senior U.S. defense official said the religious rites aboard the ship lasted about 50 minutes. He said bin Laden’s body was washed, wrapped in a white sheet and then placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read “religious remarks,” which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. “After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased’s body eased into the sea,” the official told reporters. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, in accordance with Pentagon procedures.
His demise solved an immediate problem for U.S. officials, who had long debated what they would do with bin Laden if he were captured alive. Brennan said that the burial-at-sea option had been planned in advance of the raid, but that U.S. officials had also prepared contingencies in case he was taken into custody alive.
Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, said it is unclear whether the sea burial will defuse bin Laden’s potential as a cult figure.
“Because there is no resting place, no closure, It could actually work to encourage conspiracy theories that he is still alive,” he said.
Staff writers Paul Farhi and David Brown contributed to this report.