Buried At Sea?: The conspiracy theory that will not die

The Story

Leaked emails from the intelligence company Statfor show that one of the company’s executives did not believe Osama bin Laden’s corpse was buried at sea after being killed in Pakistan last year. Needless to say, conspiracy theorists are going ape-shit over this, claiming that the handful of dubious emails leaked by Wikileaks prove some as yet ill-defined conspiracy theory about bin Laden’s death.

In one email, headed “OBL’s corpse,” Vice President Fred Burton said that, “Body is Dover bound, should be here by now,” referring to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. In a previous email, he expressed doubt that the FBI and Department of Justice would approve dumping the body. In an email headed “[alpha] Body bound for Dover, DE on CIA plane,” Burton wrote “Than [sic] onward to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Bethesda.” The AFIP was shuttered in 2005, so he probably meant the Joint Pathology Center located at Walter Reed hospital.
Problems
Notice that the emails refer to his corpse–as in, his dead body. This lends no credence whatsoever to conspiracy theories about bin Laden still be alive or whatever else the Infowars lunatics are going on about. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that an executive of a private company is legitimately more informed about the moment-to-moment goings on of a top secret special operation than anyone else. He may have been blowing smoke or been misinformed. Or the emails might be fake (consider the chain of custody here).
But, to be honest, I wouldn’t be terribly shocked if it were true. Dumping the body of America’s most wanted enemy into the ocean just hours after killing him doesn’t strike me as a logical thing to do, a priori. But it might be a logical thing to tell people.
The reasons for keeping the body are self-evident–as Burton says, “We would want to photograph, DNA, fingerprint, etc. His body is a crime scene and I don’t see the FBI nor DOJ letting that happen.” It’s a reasonable suspicion to have. But the arguments for dumping the body are also sound: it would prevent people building a shrine to him, if he were buried on land, or worldwide protests about the US government “desecrating” a Muslim’s body, if it was kept by the CIA or army for medical analysis. It would also preempt calls for actual desecration by Americans caught up in the blood-lust of that moment.
The most expedient thing to do in that situation may very well have been to lie, fly the body back for autopsy and analysis, and then cremate it. Such a decision could have been made and carried out in secret, involving relatively few people. The government has legitimate reasons for keeping certain decisions secret, especially about highly sensitive covert operations. The reality, however, is that we have no reason to believe that bin Laden’s body was ever brought back to the United States, beyond a few emails from an unauthoritative source that were stolen and distributed by a sketchy group of internet hackers.
Stay tuned for more on this.
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Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier

Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.

View all posts by Daniel Bier

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