Capturing Bin Laden On Camera

John Miller, then with ABC, interviews Osama bin Laden in 1998. He spoke about the experience yesterday at the trial of bin Laden's former driver.
John Miller, then with ABC, interviews Osama bin Laden in 1998. He spoke about the experience yesterday at the trial of bin Laden's former driver. (Abc News)

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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba, July 29 -- The blue pickup was rolling through the remote tribal regions of Afghanistan when masked men suddenly jumped up from the side of the road, guns blazing.

The ABC news crew inside the truck scrambled to avoid bullets. The men surrounded the truck, weapons drawn, yelling questions and demanding papers. Security is always increased, the crew was told, "when Mr. bin Laden is going to be present."

Correspondent John Miller was about to interview the man who would become the most wanted terrorist in the world. The former ABC reporter testified here on Tuesday about his 1998 session with Osama bin Laden at the military commission trial of bin Laden's former driver, Salim Ahmed Hamdan. His yarn proved more riveting than much of the testimony so far.

Several clips of that interview were briefly shown in court, including an unaired outtake in which Miller told bin Laden that he is "like the Middle East version of Teddy Roosevelt."

The al-Qaeda leader's reaction was not clear.

Miller -- now the FBI's chief spokesman -- explained to the jury that he made the remark mainly to keep bin Laden talking so his cameraman could get a better shot. He added later that the comparison referred to bin Laden's fight against the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Hamdan, accused of terrorism conspiracy in the first U.S. military commission since World War II, seemed like an afterthought on Tuesday in the small, comfortable courtroom in an old aircraft operations center overlooking the sparkling waters of Guantanamo Bay. Wearing a white headdress, the defendant sat quietly as Miller described an 11-day odyssey through the wilds of Pakistan and Afghanistan, a trip with all the elements of a covert operation, albeit a journalistic one. It ended with Miller landing one of bin Laden's first sit-downs with a Western television reporter.

"We were almost literally driven back into time," Miller told a jury of six uniformed military officers. "We went from cities that had big hotels, phones and faxes and computers to small towns in the frontier to smaller towns in the tribal areas. Our communications were steadily cut off."

It was three years before the twin towers would fall and the Pentagon would burn. Bin Laden had recently issued a religious fatwa requiring Muslims to kill Americans. But the American public was only dimly aware of the wealthy Saudi exile and his al-Qaeda network.

Hoping for a scoop, the ABC newsman called Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA counterterrorism chief and network consultant, for help in getting to bin Laden. Cannistraro put out "feelers in the community," Miller testified, which led to a man in London named Khalid.

With a four-person crew in tow, Miller flew to London about May 17, 1998. After endorsing "the PR value" of an interview, Khalid sent them on to Islamabad, Pakistan, where two men soon knocked on the door of Miller's hotel room.


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