One of the most dubious revelations from the Stratfor document dump on WikiLeaks.org -- unfounded skepticism about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden's body -- is drawing the most attention in the media this week. In the last five days, speculative stories that bin Laden's body was not buried at sea, as the U.S. government has said, but secretly transported to the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and cremated has been picked up by Business Insider, The Huffington Post, The Telegraph, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, RT and scores of other blogs, culminating in a lead story splashed on the Drudge Report this morning. It would be an intriguing story—if only there was a shred of evidence substantiating it.
The story goes that when bin Laden was captured on May 2 in Pakistan, instead of being buried in the North Arabian Sea on the USS Carl Vinson, as the U.S. maintains, a CIA plane transported him to Dover Air Force Base and "onward to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Bethesda [Maryland]" where he was later cremated. The "secret intelligence" stems from emails written by Fred Burton, the vice president for intelligence at Stratfor, the private intelligence firm hacked by Anonymous and exposed by WikiLeaks. On May 2 Burton writes "Body bound for Dover, DE on CIA plan." There are so many dubious aspects of this story it's hard to know where to begin.
First off: It's telling what each story doesn't tell you about the emails. In RT, the Russian-subsidized news service that was picked up by Drudge, there's no mention of the first email Burton sent where he says "Reportedly, we took the body with us. Thank goodness. Sent via Blackberry by AT&T" That first word suggests he's just reading news reports and passing along information. That last sentence suggests he's spouting off text messages. It certainly doesn't suggest he's running his own reconnaissance operation.
Second, and most importantly: reports like Business Insider's fail to mention that Burton himself actually reverses himself later on and acknowledges that bin Laden was buried at sea. In one of his final exchanges on May 2, Burton writes "Down & dirty done, He already sleeps with the fish...."
Third: reports like The Daily Mail's say bin Laden's body was "flown to the U.S. for cremation at secret location." No evidence of that even exists within the already dubious email banter. Instead, Burton and Stratfor CEO George Friedman make an odd analogy to the cremation of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi lieutenant who was prosecuted and executed by Israelis. Burton writes:
As you can see, the cremation detail only concerns Eichmann, not bin Laden.
A fourth aspect to consider is that if bin Laden's body was taken to the sprawling Air Force Base that is Dover, it would be awfully hard for more information about his arrival to not leak out to the press.
Anyway, the CIA and Pentagon are loath to officially comment on the story but a government official tells us, "There is no truth whatsoever to the allegations made in the article."
What's clear about the pickup of this story is a lot of suspicion surrounding bin Laden's death remains. In no small part, that's the fault of the Obama administration for refusing to go on-the-record about a number of elements concerning the raid and the series of misstatements and corrections the administration made following the announcement of the operation in May. Still, misleading stories like today's only succeed in making those seeking earnest answers about the raid look loony.
Update: A Pentagon spokesman, in an e-mail to The Atlantic Wire, denies the rather spurious accusation that bin Laden was cremated:
Traditional procedures for Islamic burial were followed for Osama bin Laden. His body was washed and then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag and a military officer read prepared 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 body eased into the sea. Any allegations otherwise are simply false.