By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 17, 2008
GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, July 16 -- In the days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Salim Ahmed Hamdan drove Osama bin Laden around Afghanistan, staying with him at secret guesthouses and the "Star of Jihad" training camp in anticipation of a retaliatory U.S. attack, an FBI agent testified Wednesday.
Special Agent George M. Crouch Jr. told a military judge that Hamdan described the frantic getaway to him during interrogations at the U.S. military prison here in 2002. He quoted Hamdan as saying he knew of bin Laden's involvement in the strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and that he helped the al-Qaeda leader escape after the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.
"Mr. Hamdan explained that he understood an operation was about to take place, and that this would be the first time that bin Laden was going up against the Americans," Crouch said of the hectic days before al-Qaeda operatives bombed the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Pointing to a map he helped draw based on Hamdan's alleged account, Crouch added: "They decided they needed to evacuate the [al-Qaeda] compound."
The testimony at a pretrial hearing provided a glimpse of the evidence prosecutors plan to introduce at Hamdan's trial, scheduled to begin Monday, which would be the first U.S. military commission since the end of World War II.
Defense lawyers acknowledge that Hamdan was a driver for bin Laden but say he had no involvement in terrorism. They are trying to persuade a judge to throw out Hamdan's statements, saying they were obtained through coercion.
A prosecutor on Wednesday vehemently denied Hamdan's allegations that he was abused by interrogators at the U.S. military prison, growing so animated that the military judge told him to "turn down the volume and the rancor."
Lt. Cmdr. Timothy Stone, who is prosecuting Hamdan on terrorism conspiracy charges, said Hamdan is a difficult inmate who poses disciplinary problems, but has been allowed to exercise regularly and communicate with other prisoners. Hamdan's jailers, Stone said, "are not horrible people."
Wearing a crisp white Navy uniform, Stone gripped the lectern and said the defense has "shown absolutely nothing, not one thing, that shows he has ever been treated differently than any other inmate."
Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, who is overseeing the proceedings, asked prosecutors for more information on Hamdan's conditions of confinement, including how he is treated and how often he is afforded recreational time.
Hamdan, a Yemeni father of two who is in his late 30s, complained about those conditions at a hearing Tuesday, saying a female interrogator elicited information from him using sexually suggestive behavior that he found offensive. He also said he was deprived of sleep and was repeatedly held in solitary confinement.
His lawyers got Crouch, the FBI agent, to acknowledge on cross-examination that he protested to the military when Hamdan said during a 2002 interrogation that he was in solitary confinement. Hamdan was quickly taken out of solitary, Crouch said, even though the military had told him he had no role in determining the prisoner's conditions.
Asked if the incident hurt his efforts to get Hamdan to talk, Crouch said: "Absolutely, absolutely, it really hurt. . . . We had a pretty good rapport going to that point."
FBI agents have argued for a less coercive approach to interrogation than was sometimes used at Guantanamo. FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III earlier this year defended the efficacy of "rapport-building" tactics.
Late Wednesday, Allred denied a motion by Hamdan's defense to dismiss the terrorism and conspiracy charges on the grounds that they were not specifically illegal at the time Hamdan allegedly committed the acts.
The legal skirmishing came ahead of a hearing today in U.S. District Court in Washington. Judge James Robertson will hear arguments about whether Hamdan's trial should be postponed so he can first contest his detention in federal court.