Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Authenticating Bin Laden's Body

Josh Marshall ponders the question of whether the US should release photos of Bin Laden's body.

That is a good question but one that at this stage probably has no good answer. Given the number of 'birthers' peddling a crackpot conspiracy theory about the President's place of birth I can well imagine members of Al Qaeda engaging in similar denial of the obvious. It is even possible, likely even that the same unscrupulous US politicians who saw advantage in pandering to birtherism will see benefit in claiming Bin Laden's death is a hoax.

So a better question would be how to provide proof beyond an unreasonable doubt that someone is dead.

One way to do this would be to use numbered, sealed tamper-evident bags. These are produced by several suppliers and were originally used for demonstrating that cash deposits have not been tampered with by couriers. A store keeper puts their takings in the bag notes the serial number and gives it to the courier. They then call the recipient and tell them the serial number of the bag. When the courier gives the bag to the recipient they check the serial number of the bag is correct and that it has not been tampered with.

The bags are made of a fairly durable but thin plastic and are self sealing with an incredibly strong glue that cannot be parted without leaving evidence. Some bags have a tamper evident strip in the glue so that the bag says 'void' if opened.

These bags are used to establish the chain of custody for evidence in criminal trials.

So a basic protocol for establishing the death of BinLaden would be

  1. Secure the area
  2. Determine Bin Laden is dead
  3. Cover most of body with sheet
  4. Begin recording proceedings with video camera providing notarial authentication
  5. Take tissue sample from body
  6. Place tissue sample in evidence bag
  7. Note serial number of bag
  8. Seal bag
  9. Stop recording
  10. Place video camera in evidence bag
  11. Transfer bags to laboratory
  12. Begin recording of proceedings with video camera providing notarial authentication
  13. Remove samples
  14. Extract DNA
  15. Print out DNA analysis
  16. Stop recording
  17. Publish all data

The serial numbers are unique but an unreasonable doubter could assert that the producer had been suborned into producing unnumbered bags and the number added later. So a way to provide additional proof that the evidence has not been tampered with would be to use two bags, one inside the other and put one or more bank notes, preferably from different countries inside the outer bag but not the inner. The serial numbers on the bank notes would then be used to provide additional proof that the evidence had not been tampered with.

It is my belief that the US government has already eliminated all reasonable doubt that Bin Laden has been killed. Does the protocol I propose eliminate unreasonable doubt as well? I would hope so but some people will dispute even the most indisputable facts.