The Challenge Of Getting An ID On Bin Laden
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
When U.S. commandos stormed Osama bin Laden's compound, they weren't sure who they would find inside. And when they found the man they thought was bin Laden, they had to be sure. But how?
For more on the effort to corroborate his identity, we're joined by counterterrorism expert Phil Mudd. He spent most of his career with the CIA. He's now a senior research fellow with the counterterrorism strategy initiative at the New America Foundation. Welcome to the studio.
Mr. PHILIP MUDD (Senior Research Fellow, New America Foundation): Thank you.
NORRIS: First, it has been reported that the president nixed a bombing raid that might have obliterated all those inside the compound because he wanted to make sure that there was enough bodily evidence to confirm that bin Laden was a victim of the strike. It's a bit gruesome here, in exactly what we're talking about, but help us understand what kind of evidence they would need from the bombing site for a DNA confirmation or a photo confirmation.
Mr. MUDD: For example, you're looking for things like blood or tissue to ensure that if you have samples from family members you can compare those to samples and the only way to get that is through physical evidence.
NORRIS: And how did the government obtain the DNA from family members?
Mr. MUDD: I don't know. But one of the things you could do is he's got family members around the Middle East, go and ask family members who are sympathetic for a sample. You might ask security services to help you. You want to anticipate this kind of event so that when it happens a week in advance, you're not scrambling around trying to figure out what do we do if we get them.
NORRIS: Even though they can do this DNA identification much faster than they could in the past, they had to rely on other things initially. Things like a photo scan.
Mr. MUDD: I think that makes sense to me. I mean, the DNA is going to take a few hours. You've got people sitting around the situation room saying, what do we do now?
NORRIS: But how would a photo scan work? Because bin Laden has changed over time, he's aged. If he had been shot, particularly shot in the face, he might not look like any of the photos that they had on file.
Mr. MUDD: Possibly. And that's why I think the DNA piece is so significant. But you're looking at not only at what appears to the human eye in a photograph, you're looking at things like the distance between various facial features and whether that distance is the same or different, for example, how far apart are your ears from other parts of your face? And comparing those over time, it's very hard to hide distances on a face, even a face that's disfigured.
NORRIS: How long - where do they do that? Do they send that information back to someone else who's in some sort of war room or ops center going over all this information?
Mr. MUDD: My guess is you had a live ops center here and you're having live transmissions of photographs and video from the scene. And once you get a photograph on the individual, you're going to have someone who's expert on doing the computer comparison between known photographs of bin Laden, what this photograph was.
NORRIS: On that raid on that compound, we've heard a lot about the Navy SEALs who went in there. Should we assume that there were some forensic experts that were also part of this team collecting this data?
Mr. MUDD: I would not assume there are forensic experts on the team. Look, if you have the body, you can acquire things like tissue, hair and blood, back when you take them to a compound in Afghanistan. My guess is that the members of the team were solely focused on storming the compound, finding the guy and getting them out of there, and not focused on, what do you with the body once you get it?
NORRIS: There's something interesting about the timeline here. It seems that the DNA confirmation came after President Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed. How certain could they be that they actually had bin Laden without that DNA evidence?
Mr. MUDD: My guess is pretty darn certain. Look, if you're building an intelligence picture over the course of eight months, as the president described, and you're dedicating two helicopters to cross into a sovereign country, high risk, we have to remember, this is probably one out of ten, one out of twenty chances this goes as smoothly as it went.
The DNA process would be to guarantee to the world and yourselves you got the right guy, but before that, I've got to believe they were fairly certain he was in the compound and once they shot him, fairly certain looking at him that it was bin Laden.
NORRIS: Phil Mudd, thanks so much for coming in.
Mr. MUDD: My pleasure. Thank you.
NORRIS: Phil Mudd is the former analyst with the CIA. He's now a senior research fellow with the counterterrorism strategy initiative at the New America Foundation.
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