Guantanamo testimony: U.S. let bin Laden's top bodyguard go

The Miami HeraldJuly 24, 2008 

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Soon after Osama bin Laden's driver got here in 2002, he told interrogators the identity of the al Qaeda chief's most senior bodyguard — then a fellow prison camp detainee.

But, inexplicably, the U.S. let the bodyguard go.

This startling information was revealed in the fourth day of the war crimes trial of Salim Hamdan, 37, facing conspiracy and material support for terror charges as an alleged member of bin Laden's inner circle.

Michael St. Ours, an agent with the Naval Criminal Intelligence Service, NCIS, provided the first tidbit. He testified for the prosecution that his job as a prison camps interrogator in May 2002 was to find and focus on the bodyguards among the detainees.

And Hamdan helped identify 30 of them — 10 percent of the roughly 300 detainees then held here. They had just been transferred to Camp Delta from the crude compound called Camp X-Ray, and U.S. intelligence was still trying to unmask them.

Chief among them was Casablanca-born Abdallah Tabarak, then 47, described by St. Ours as ''a hard individual,'' and, thanks to Hamdan, ``the head bodyguard of all the bodyguards.''

St. Ours said he was eager to speak with Tabarak. But the Moroccan was ''uncooperative,'' and St. Ours moved on to other intelligence jobs — and never learned afterward what became of him.

Then, on cross-examination, Hamdan defense attorney Harry Schneider dropped a bombshell:

''Would it surprise you to learn he was released without ever being charged?'' St. Ours looked stunned.

''Yeah,'' he said.

Prison camp and Pentagon spokesmen did not reply Thursday to a request for an explanation. Tabarak's name was gone from an official prison camp roster drawn up by the Defense Department in September 2004, after some 200 captives had been sent away. A month before, Morocco's state news agency said all five of its nationals had been repatriated from the camps, for investigation.

For two days, FBI and other federal agents have testified about the extent -- and limits -- of Hamdan's cooperation in a string of interrogations since his November 2001 capture by U.S.-allied Afghan forces at a checkpoint in southern Afghanistan.

Defense lawyers have sought to portray the father of two with a fourth-grade education as ultimately helpful to the Americans — after he initially covered up his relationship with bin Laden.

Prosecutors have called him truculent, a loyal and trusted member of bin Laden's inner circle who grudgingly spoke with interrogators — and never came clean on why there were two surface-to-air missiles in his car when he was captured.

Hamdan said at his Nov. 25, 2001, battlefield interrogation that he borrowed the car, and the missiles happened to be inside it.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service