World

Prosecution almost finished in bin Laden's driver's trial

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba — Pentagon prosecutors provisionally finished presenting their case against Osama bin Laden's driver at the Guantanamo war court Tuesday, having called 13 witnesses across seven days.

The judge, Navy Capt. Keith Allred, told a six-officer military panel by lunch that they were released for the day while defense attorneys and prosecutors worked out whether the Pentagon could call one more witness in the terror trial of Salim Hamdan.

At issue is whether the government will be permitted to let Robert McFadden, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service agent, describe a May 2003 interrogation of Hamdan at the Guantanamo prison camps.

The driver reportedly told McFadden that he had pledged a ''sacred oath of allegiance'' to bin Laden to seal his membership in al Qaeda. Hamdan denies he joined the group.

Hamdan is accused of conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism, for allegedly serving as the al Qaeda godfather's sometime bodyguard and weapons courier, as well as his driver. The 37-year-old Yemeni with a fourth-grade education says he took the job for wages, not ideology.

Defense lawyers have sought to exclude the interrogation — one of dozens conducted from Afghanistan to Cuba — on grounds that guards moved Hamdan to solitary confinement and stripped him of his so-called ''comfort items'' beforehand. Absent the government proving otherwise at a hearing Wednesday, the military judge said he would exclude the fruits of the interrogation on grounds it was "coercive.''

The interrogation is significant: It is the only known time Hamdan supposedly told his captors he had taken the pledge — described by terror experts as key milestone in joining the al Qaeda inner circle. McFadden also has said, in pre-trial hearings, that Hamdan described being transfixed by the charismatic leader with whom he shares a common Yemeni ancestry.

He quoted Hamdan as feeling an ''uncontrollable enthusiasm'' in the company of the 6-foot-5-inch Saudi. In Arabic, the phrase was hamas jidan.

Allred told the jury that the testimony they heard from a former ABC investigative reporter, John Miller, now an FBI spokesman, ''completes the government's case in chief.'' Miller was called to describe a May 1998 interview he conducted in Afghanistan with bin Laden, before he rose to international infamy.

Now the FBI's chief spokesman, Miller described a career of working between law enforcement and broadcast news.

In the interview, bin Laden described himself as at war with the United States. Once the interview was over, Miller testified, a bin Laden deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri said the meaning would soon be apparent.

That summer, suicide bombers struck at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, announcing al Qaeda's entry on the world stage.

Miller also described in detail an 11-day journey from Islamabad, Pakistan, to bin Laden in tribal Afghanistan — a stop-and-start journey, by aircraft, truck, bus, and at times on foot that took him across the border from village to hut to an al Qaeda training camp.

Miller submitted his questions in writing, through Zawahiri, and was told he could ask no follow up questions. At one point, making small talk, according to a videotape outtake shown in court, Miller told the Saudi millionaire in exile that he was ``the Middle East version of Teddy Roosevelt . . . a wealthy man, who grew up in a privileged situation and who fought on the front lines.''

Bin Laden appeared not to understand.

Explaining himself in court, Miller said he had broken from a script of pre-approved questions to test the Saudi's knowledge of American history. Also, ``sometimes as a reporter when you ask the most provocative question you can elicit the most interesting response.''

It was unclear what the testimony contributed to the case, the first U.S. war crimes tribunal since World War II.

Asked whether he recognized Hamdan as one of a series of drivers who shuttled him to the secret interview, Miller replied: No.

  Comments