[This is a copy of my essay that appeared in BigPeace.com on May 3, 2011.]
Some people will never believe the facts, no matter how effectively presented. But for those of us who are convinced that Osama bin Laden is dead, it’s still imperative that the U.S. government show the forensic evidence.
Evidence is important for several reasons. Survivors of al Qaeda attacks worldwide need and deserve closure. Americans and citizens of other coalition countries invested a fortune in hunting bin Laden down, and they deserve to see the result. Citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Arab countries – civilizations where conspiracy theories that sound bizarre to American ears are treated seriously – need to know that this particular report of bin Laden’s death is indeed true. Our friends need to be reassured. Our enemies must have no doubt that Americans will stop at nothing to hunt down those who attack us.
It would have been important to place the al Qaeda leader’s body on display for all the world to see – just as it was vital to show Iraqis that their chief tormentors, Saddam Hussein and his sons Uday and Qusay, were indeed dead. But now that bin Laden’s body has been sent to the bottom of the Arabian Sea, the most convincing proof is gone.
The war against international terrorism is, above all else, a war for information and public opinion. The United States has waged the intelligence and military dimensions of the war as brilliantly as humanly possible. One cannot say the same about the information and public opinion side.
The U.S. government’s delay in providing physical proof of bin Laden’s death risks turning a brilliant American victory into a public relations setback. ABC News is reporting that, from America to Pakistan, everyday people are demanding proof. Already, conspiracy theorists are arguing that bin Laden isn’t really dead, while serious people who simply ask for proof of death are branded as “deathers,” a takeoff from “birthers” of presidential birth certificate skepticism.
Providing the world with proof is a diplomatic and national security question, not a partisan political one.
Some who have seen the proof say that it’s gory, but should be made public. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is one of them. “I met with the national security advisor today,” Graham told a local radio station on May 2. “It was an impressive operation. Every American should be proud of the way this was conducted. I want to make sure the case is closed on Osama bin Laden. And I think it would help to release information proving that this was in fact Osama bin Laden.”
Bad information policy can damage a perfect military success
As is the case with much of the US military, the intelligence collection and analysis and the precision execution of special operations forces carried out the bin Laden termination flawlessly. The operation was simply breathtaking in all its forms – a textbook case of how to do it right.
In another way, though, the operation suffered from the same flaw as the military and intelligence community in general: poor strategic thinking from the top in terms of the informational effect of actions on the ground.
President Obama’s counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, said he recognized the need to provide physical proof. “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 AP. But that was a statement after the fact. Nothing indicates that the administration planned an information policy on par with the brilliantly planned and executed mission itself.
Religious burial customs take precedence over providing proof
The decision to bury bin Laden at sea within 24 hours of death was planned in advance. Not so with the information side of the operation. As of the early hours of May 3, the White House still had not made a decision about how to portray the evidence to the public. Here is how the Washington Post described the situation:
"US 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."
Handing conspiracy theorists a ‘gift’
The legalistic American bureaucratic mindset, which is satisfied with photographic and laboratory DNA evidence, ignores political and cultural realities at home and around the world – to say nothing of the speed at which conspiracy theories spread across the Internet.
As international euphoria about the end of bin Laden recedes, the United States will find that its decision hastily to dispose of the body may have unintended and undesirable consequences.
“Conspiracy theorists are an ingenious bunch, but at the moment the White House is making this ridiculously easy for them,” wrote religion writer Damian Thompson in London’s Telegraph.
“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,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
In Thompson’s words, “It’s inconceivable that America would announce the death of its deadliest enemy without offering evidence that would convince any reasonable person; I’m surprised that it hasn’t been produced already. Moreover, why did it allow bin Laden’s body to be dropped into the sea? Is the US really so sensitive to Islamic burial practices that it is prepared to hand conspiracy theorists such a gift?”
Here’s how the Associated Press treated the matter: “the mystique that surrounded the terrorist chieftain in life is persisting in death. Was it really him? How do we know? Where are the pictures? Already, those questions are spreading in Pakistan and surely beyond. In the absence of photos and with his body given up to the sea, many people don’t want to believe that bin Laden — the Great Emir to some, the fabled escape artist of the Tora Bora mountains to foe and friend alike — is really dead.”
The administration’s lack of preparing the infospace for bin Laden’s death has invited unhealthy skepticism about the United States and its mission. A headline from the May 2 Washington Post reads, “Reports of bin Laden’s death spurs questions from conspiracy theorists.” The Los Angeles Times ran a similar headline: “Bin Laden’s sea burial fuels conspiracy theories.”
This problem was easy to foresee. Word of bin Laden’s death, debunked over and over, has circulated one way or another for years. The failure to provide immediate physical proof of the real thing has allowed fakers to fill the information vacuum. According to Sky News, “The release of a photograph purporting to show bin Laden’s corpse – which was later confirmed to be a fake – added to the confusion.”
The responsibility to show proof of death
Responsible voices are already questioning the hastiness of the disposal of bin Laden’s body, and are calling for the U.S. to show the public proof that the al Qaeda leader is indeed dead. After all, President Obama himself reportedly didn’t want to bomb bin Laden’s compound, for fear of not being able to prove that bin Laden had been killed.
The president himself wanted proof – not only for his personal knowledge and for the military necessity, but because he knew that the American public and the world needed to know the facts.
That’s what some of us are asking to see.
Sir Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the United States, said in London’s Telegraph, “I can’t conceive the US president would go out to make a statement to the world that Bin Laden is dead without being able to produce evidence that he is dead. I think we will see some evidence – DNA or photographic – to prove there is not still some phantom Osama bin Laden riding the Tora Bora mountains.”
Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said in a thoughtful observation reported by the Los Angeles Times, “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 will undoubtedly be, because he’s been shot in the head — to quell any doubts that this somehow is a ruse that the American government has carried out.”