Skeptics Question Osama Bin Laden Death, Asking for Proof

The Obama administration decides whether or not to release additional evidence.

May 2, 2011, 9:31 AM

May 2, 2011— -- As elated crowds celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden after Navy SEALs killed the al-Qaida chief in a weekend raid in Pakistan some are asking, "Where's the proof?"

Photos depicting a bloodied and bruised face appearing to be that of bin Laden began appearing on Twitter and Facebook last night soon after news of his death spread across the Internet. According to Reuters, an archive photo of bin Laden at a news conference proves that image was a fake. Now people are asking to see the evidence proving bin Laden is dead.

"We have released a tremendous amount of information to date," Obama's top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said. "At the same time we don't want to do anything that is going to compromise our ability to be as successful the next time one of these guys needs to be taken off the battlefield."

As for the releasing of death photographs, Brennan said that is "something to be determined." But he added they're going to do everything they can to prevent denials of bin Laden's death.

Public Demands Proof

From Pakistan to the U.S. people expressed their skepticism about the death of the man who is perhaps the most infamous terrorist ever known.

"I won't believe it until I see it with my own eyes. Like Sadam I wouldn't have believed it until I saw his body," tweeted MaryGlazerOut.

Eric Solochier, 22, a senior at Penn State University said his dad was one of the firefighters who helped clean up New York City the day following 9/11, so bin Laden's death would be especially meaningful to him -- he wants to believe it, but he's not convinced.

"There has to be some sort of visual or DNA test. You can obviously photoshop anything you want," said Solochier. "They should submit video. It would be somewhat gruesome but it's something we should be able to see. "

A senior at the University of Texas who wished to remain anonymous because of his participation in ROTC said that although bin Laden's death is a blow to al-Qaeda, he still finds it hard to believe.

"It's been nearly six years since we have heard a great deal about him or his potential whereabouts, and rumors of bin Laden's death (even from natural causes) extend as far back as December of 2001," he said.

It may have been those very rumors that led Obama to pass up an opportunity to bomb bin Laden's compound. As ABC News' Jake Tapper reported earlier today, Obama recognized that kind of destruction would leave no trace of bin Laden's death.

Instead, Obama opted for a far more difficult mission with a Navy SEAL team, and now the White House is grappling with whether to release the DNA evidence and photographs that they worked so hard to obtain.

Conspiracy Theories: Public Questions Bin Laden's Death

In the president's speech last night, he avoided any mention of DNA or photographic evidence. But today, officials in the Obama administration told ABC News "There's no doubt it's him."

Officials said today they are "99.9 percent" certain that bin Laden was shot dead in Pakistan. They also cited CIA photo analysis matching physical features such as bin Laden's height.

Any pictures of bin Laden would undoubtedly be gruesome, one of the reasons why the White House hasn't made them public. But the photos might be released in modified form -- just as they were in July 2003 when the U.S. government released photographs of Saddam Hussein's dead sons Uday and Qusay Hussein only after they had been touched up by a mortician.

DNA Evidence and Its Role in Terrorism Investigations

A U.S. intelligence official told ABC News bin Laden's DNA was compared with DNA from several of his relatives.

Intelligence agencies have come to rely on DNA evidence as part of their anti-terrorism operations. A 2007 report prepared by the Center for Technology and National Security Policy states the FBI has a large inventory of DNA samples, which was how DNA testing confirmed in October 2006 that Muhsin Musa Matwalli Atwah, an Al Qaeda operative wanted by the United States in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, had been killed in an air strike by Pakistani forces near the border with Afghanistan.

And if a relative isn't readily available in the U.S., how does the U.S. go about getting DNA from non-U.S. citizens? The report explains, "DNA samples from the terrorist's maternal family must be collected abroad. For this, foreign governments have been enlisted to help collect samples that can be compared with DNA from individuals captured or killed."

Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong," said bin Laden also could have also been identified via physical evidence, for example, a piece of clothing he sweated on, his hair -- if they locate the same profile in multiple pieces of evidence then they can be confident they have identified him.

The public's interest in this particular brand of proof has become more prominent, especially now that DNA evidence is regularly featured in crime shows such as "Law & Order" or Showtime's "Dexter."

"DNA is now the gold standard for identifying individuals," Garrett said. "Twenty years ago would we have demanded a fingerprint or bloodtest or comparison of the teeth? Maybe not."

Although today's public wants to hear about DNA evidence in addition to photographic evidence, the public need for "proof" remains the same as it did 50 years ago. After Adolf Hitler's suicide in April 1945, conspiracy theories for years suggested Hitler was alive and in hiding. The Russian secret services came forward with a skull and jawbones. DNA results eventually showed the skull was that of a female.

Just two years ago the History Channel aired a series called "Hitler's Escape," suggesting that without a body the potential for speculation is seemingly endless.

No doubt the bin Laden conspiracy theories will continue as people wait for visual proof of his death -- no matter how gruesome.

Edna B. Foa, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, says it's not surprising given the current political climate. After all, she said, "people are suspicious Obama wasn't born in the United States."

But a photo or DNA evidence provides little comfort. The terrorist network is called that for a reason -- it's so broad and far reaching that the death of bin Laden won't likely calm the public's fears, especially because there have already been so many rumors about his capture. Now that he has been caught, 10 years later, "It's not such a big deal in terms of influencing how people feel about being taken care of," Foa said.

Solochier, whose father helped clean up New York City after 9/11, says seeing a photo wouldn't provide closure, "But it's a huge step in the right direction."

The Associated Press and ABC News on Campus reporters Danielle Waugh and Ashley Jennings contributed to this report.

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