WASHINGTON – A U.S. military search team has recovered "small pieces of bone and human flesh" from the site of a Feb. 4 Hellfire missile strike in Afghanistan, and the materials are being sent back to determine exactly who was killed in the attack, the Pentagon said Monday.
Based on initial indications from the site, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said U.S. officials are "in a comfort zone" that enemy fighters or Al Qaeda members had been killed in the attack.
"These were not innocents," he said, while acknowledging that the identities of the victims still are not known.
A team of 50 U.S. soldiers managed to reach the site over the weekend after being hampered by bad weather and high snow accumulations.
The Pentagon believes the dead included Al Qaeda members, and there has been speculation that Usama bin Laden may have among them.
When asked if U.S. officials would be able to identify bin Laden's remains from DNA, Stufflebeem said: "I can't even verify that we have bin Laden DNA to compare it to, at this point. But I can substantiate that we are trying to gather DNA for identification purposes."
The only way DNA would be useful for identification of bin Laden is if the United States already had a bin Laden DNA sample with which to compare. That could be either a sample from bin Laden himself or from a relative on his mother's side of his family.
Villagers told a Washington Post reporter that the victims of the attack were not Al Qaeda, but three peasants who were gathering scrap metal from the war.
Responding to that report, Victoria Clarke, chief spokeswoman for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said, "We haven't seen or heard anything that leads us to believe that it was anything other than what we thought the target was."
Stufflebeem said the U.S. soldiers who reached the site of the attack had found evidence disputing claims that those killed were innocents.
He said they recovered ammunition, an empty box for a hand-held radio, English-language documents — including credit card applications and commercial airline schedules — and pieces of human remains.
They also checked in nearby caves and villages and talked with locals before leaving the area Monday, he said.
Stufflebeem stressed that the attack was carried out by an unmanned CIA Predator aircraft with no direct participation by U.S. Central Command.
"This was an agency mission," he said. "This was a case where Central Command was not actively participating or coordinated with this particular strike." Afterward the U.S. military entered the picture by dispatching soldiers to the strike site to investigate, he added.
That differs from the description offered by Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he was asked about the Hellfire strike during a Pentagon news conference last Friday.
"There were lots of discussions among Central Command and other folks on the target, and it was concluded that it was a valid target and it was struck," Myers said. He never mentioned the CIA by name.
In a telephone interview Monday, Central Command's chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, said CIA and Central Command officers had "compared notes" before the decision was made by the CIA to launch the attack.
"We interposed no objection," Quigley said. "We think this was a good call."
Whereas other senior Defense Department officials had been unwilling to publicly discuss the CIA's role in offensive military operations in Afghanistan, Stufflebeem offered new insights into its actions. He said the Pentagon and CIA work closely together on "just about everything" happening in Afghanistan.
However, there are times when the CIA has its own objectives and pursues them without asking for support from the Pentagon — and in some cases, apparently without informing Central Command.
"Because of the time sensitivity to it, we may not even be totally aware of all those actions that are going on," Stufflebeem said.
Quigley said that even in cases where Central Command is consulted in advance by the CIA, it cannot veto an agency decision to attack.
The U.S. military personnel who went to the strike site brought back for study the bits of human remains found there, he said. He said DNA from remains recovered at this and other attack sites is being catalogued for identification purposes.
American officials said last week they believed the targets were Al Qaeda members, in part because of their Arab-style dress.
On another matter, Clarke said that Rumsfeld has asked for an investigation into allegations that Afghans mistakenly taken prisoner by U.S. military forces in a raid last month were later beaten and mistreated.
Clarke said the military "has nothing to indicate that anything like that happened," but is looking into it nonetheless in the wake of newspaper reports.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.