A terrorism suspect held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a commander for Osama bin Laden during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and helped the al Qaeda leader escape his mountain hideout at Tora Bora in 2001, according to a U.S. government document.
The document, provided to the Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information request, says the unnamed detainee "assisted in the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora." It is the first definitive statement from the Pentagon that bin Laden was at Tora Bora and evaded U.S. pursuers.
"The detainee was one of Osama bin Laden's commanders during the Soviet jihad," the document says, referring to the holy war against Soviet occupiers.
The events at Tora Bora were a point of contention during last year's presidential race. President Bush and Vice President Cheney asserted that commanders did not know whether bin Laden was there when U.S. and allied Afghan forces attacked the area in December 2001.
Cheney said on Oct. 26 that Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, had "stated repeatedly it was not at all certain that bin Laden was in Tora Bora. He might have been there or in Pakistan or even Kashmir."
Franks, now retired, wrote in an opinion column in the New York Times on Oct. 19: "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001." He added that intelligence assessments of his location varied, and that bin Laden was "never within our grasp."
On several occasions in the days after the publication of that column, Bush cited it on the campaign trail as evidence that bin Laden could have been in any of several countries in December 2001. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee, lambasted Bush during the campaign for having missed a chance to capture or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora, a mountainous area along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The assertion about the detainee's efforts and bin Laden's escape is made as a statement of fact; it does not indicate how the information was obtained for the "summary of evidence" prepared Dec. 14 for a hearing on whether the prisoner was being correctly held as an "enemy combatant."