WASHINGTON – Internal emails among senior U.S. military officers indicate that no sailors watched Usama bin Laden's burial at sea from the USS Carl Vinson and traditional Islamic procedures were followed during the ceremony.
The emails, obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, are heavily blacked out, but are the first public disclosure of government information about the Al Qaeda leader's death. The emails were released Wednesday by the Defense Department.
Bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011, by a Navy SEAL team that assaulted his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
One email sent on May 2 by a senior Navy officer briefly describes how bin Laden's body was washed, wrapped in a white sheet, and then placed in a weighted bag.
According to another message, only a small group of the ship's leadership was informed of the burial.
"Traditional procedures for Islamic burial was followed," the May 2 email from Rear Adm. Charles Gaouette reads. "The deceased's body was washed (ablution) then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag. 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's body slid into the sea."
The email also included a cryptic reference to the intense secrecy surrounding the mission. "The paucity of documentary evidence in our possession is a reflection of the emphasis placed on operational security during the execution of this phase of the operation," Gaouette's message reads. Recipients of the email included Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. James Mattis, the top officer at U.S. Central Command.
Earlier, Gaouette, then the deputy commander of the Navy's Fifth Fleet, and another officer used code words to discuss whether the helicopters carrying the SEALs and bin Laden's body had arrived on the Vinson.
"Any news on the package for us?" he asked Rear Adm. Samuel Perez, commander of the carrier strike group that included the Vinson.
"FEDEX delivered the package," Perez responded. "Both trucks are safely enroute home base."
Although the Obama administration has pledged to be the most transparent in American history, it is keeping a tight hold on materials related to the bin Laden raid. In a response to separate requests from the AP for information about the mission, the Defense Department said in March that it could not locate any photographs or video taken during the raid or showing bin Laden's body. It also said it could not find any images of bin Laden's body on the Vinson.
The Pentagon also said it could not find any death certificate, autopsy report or results of DNA identification tests for bin Laden, or any pre-raid materials discussing how the government planned to dispose of bin Laden's body if he were killed.
The Defense Department also refused to confirm or deny the existence of helicopter maintenance logs and reports about the performance of military gear used in the raid. One of the stealth helicopters that carried the SEALs to Abbottabad crashed during the mission and its wreckage was left behind. People who lived near bin Laden's compound took photos of the disabled chopper.
The AP is appealing the Defense Department's decision. The CIA, which ran the bin Laden raid and has special legal authority to keep information from ever being made public, has not responded to AP's request for records about the mission.