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.
"They came in, and they looked in the bathroom, behind the shower curtain, in the closet," Miller recalled in his characteristic deep monotone. "It was a bit of a surprise visit."
Miller and his cameraman and Iraqi translator (the sound man and producer were nixed) were told to be ready at 7 a.m., dressed in traditional Afghan clothing. They were sent on a plane to Peshawar, Pakistan, escorted by an al-Qaeda member, Miller testified.
One of bin Laden's men insisted on paying the airfare. The source of that funding was not made clear.
The following morning, the newsmen were off by propeller plane to an obscure Pakistani northwestern town called Bannu. "The airport is not much more than a cinderblock building," Miller said. "It opens for the flight that comes in and closes shortly after."
In Bannu, the crew was left by a roadside. Eventually, a bus pulled up, and a man with a long white beard emerged. After a three-hour bus ride, he guided Miller and crew into a minivan, which barreled to a gated house with AK-47s hanging from the walls inside.
That led to a long ride in the back of a pickup, where they sat on sacks of flour. "We drove in riverbeds and across wilderness," Miller said.
He and the crew eventually were hauling their bags and 15-pound television camera across the rugged border into Afghanistan.
They were urged to keep the camera out of sight. Afghanistan's Taliban rulers had "outlawed cameras and the photographing of human beings," Miller said.
Driven through the night, the crew came to a fork in the road. They were greeted by a friendly man and another who grimly confiscated their camera.
Did the men introduce themselves, a prosecutor asked Miller.
"No, not formally," he said.
The smiling man, Miller would later realize, was Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's No. 2 aide and still a fugitive today like his boss. The unfriendly man was Muhammad Atef, al-Qaeda's security chief, who was later killed by U.S. bombs two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The ABC crew was taken to a small hut atop another hill. "This is probably not what you are used to in terms of accommodations, but around here it's the Ritz," Miller quoted Zawahiri as saying.
"You will be comfortable here. You are not prisoners. You are our guests," the al-Qaeda deputy continued.
They just couldn't leave the hut.
Thus began a days-long ritual in which Miller submitted 16 written questions on a yellow legal pad and asked each day when the interview would take place.
The green light came on May 28.
After being thoroughly searched, their pencils and pens confiscated, the men were loaded into the blue pickup and driven through a series of checkpoints, where the masked men emerged and opened fire.
Apparently, the al-Qaeda bureaucracy hadn't gotten word of the interview.
Finally, they came to a hilltop camp in southern Afghanistan, greeted by hundreds more masked men who fired into the air when bin Laden arrived with a phalanx of bodyguards.
The al-Qaeda boss would speak, but his answers would not be translated into English, Zawahiri told Miller. "I said, 'That's going to be a problem -- how will I ask a follow-up question?' " Miller said he told Zawahiri.
"He said it won't be a problem. There will be no follow-up questions."
There would also be no footage of the camp. "Dr. Zawahiri explained that 'this is not like your Sam Donaldson walking through the Rose Garden of the White House with the president,' " Miller told the jury. "Mr. bin Laden was a very important man."
The interview itself, in which bin Laden predicted "a black future for America" (two U.S. embassies in East Africa would blow up three months later), was almost anticlimactic to Miller's testimony.
The drama aside, it was also uncertain what purpose the testimony bore to the case against Hamdan, who faces up to life in prison if convicted. Defense lawyers say he was a minor chauffeur uninvolved in terrorism.
Prosecutors, who say Hamdan ferried weapons for al-Qaeda, called Miller to the stand amid other evidence about al-Qaeda's history and ideology.
Though federal agents have testified that Hamdan told them that he drove bin Laden to other media events, Miller acknowledged out of the jury's presence that he couldn't identify Hamdan.
The defense was unimpressed. "I thought it was an interesting human story," said Michael Berrigan, the deputy chief defense counsel. "But I don't recall any connection to Mr. Hamdan."
As for Miller, he left the stand and flew back to his FBI job in Washington. It was time to go back to speaking out against terrorists, not speaking to them.