Here's a fun little exercise. Let's say that the vice-president of a political consulting firm went on MSNBC or Fox News with the argument that no matter what the U.S. government said, Osama bin Laden wasn't actually buried at sea. No, this wouldn't be a claim that Osama had returned as a zombie. The VP would simply argue that based on past standard operating procedures and the desire of some agencies in the USG to gather forensic evidence, it would seem likely that they would want the body. In all likelihood the cable anchor would then ask if there was any direct evidence to back up this assertion. The VP would either say no, dodge the question, or imply some third-hand knowledge, and that would be that.
Here's my question: would this cable news hit generate anything in the way of news headlines?
I ask this because the Drudge Report has headlined: "WIKILEAKED: BIN LADEN BODY NOT BURIED AT SEA" This sounds pretty definitive. But if you look at the actual Stratfor emails that Wikileaks provides on the matter, you get little but speculations and assertions from Stratfor CEO George Friedman and VP Fred Burton. From Friedman:
Eichmann was seen alive for many months on trial before being sentenced to death and executed. No one wanted a monument to him so they cremated him. But i dont know anyone who claimed he wasnt eicjhman (sic). No comparison with suddenly burying him at sea without any chance to view him which i doubt happened.
And from Burton:
We would want to photograph, DNA, fingerprint, etc.
His body is a crime scene and I don't see the FBI nor DOJ letting that happen....
Body is Dover bound, should be here by now.
That's it. No sourcing, nothing else. Friedman is speculating, while Burton makes a somewhat stronger assertion without much empirical foundation. The only reason this is on the front page of Drudge -- and the only reason reporters are running with it -- is that the Stratfor e-mails were private and not intended for public consumption. And if it's private, then it must be pretty good!
Or not. Look, reporters and analysts should pore over these email contents and see if there is anything of value. But they also need to follow up with outside experts in their reporting to distinguish between what's said in the emails and what's actually true. Because, to repeat a point I made a few years ago: "just because someone says something in a Wikileaks memo doesn't make it so." Indeed, it is precisely this sort of BS pseudo-analysis that makes me distrust the quality of Stratfor's analysis in the first place.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.