July 25, 2008

Guantanamo war crimes defendant helped Bin Laden succeed, FBI agent testifies

Guantanamo war crimes defendant helped Bin Laden succeed, FBI agent testifies

Bit players like the Al Qaeda leader's driver are key to protecting Bin Laden, says a spy who interrogated Salim Ahmed Hamdan for 13 days, building a relationship with him by giving him snacks and oth
By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
July 26, 2008
GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA -- Salim Ahmed Hamdan may have been only a driver for Osama bin Laden, but the legions of bit players in Al Qaeda are what has allowed the terrorist leader to succeed, an FBI agent testified Friday.

"Without people like Mr. Hamdan, Bin Laden would enjoy no support, he would not enjoy protection and he probably would not have been able to elude capture up to this point," Special Agent George M. Crouch Jr. told the military jurors hearing the first U.S. war crimes case in 60 years.

The prosecution witness told the court that Hamdan's cooperation with at least 40 U.S. government interrogators in the months after his November 2001 capture was helpful in the fight against terrorism but does not diminish his responsibility.

But Crouch acknowledged under cross-examination that if he had interrogated Hamdan anywhere but the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, he would have advised him that what he said could be used against him.

"I would have read him his rights," said Crouch, who spent 13 days interrogating Hamdan in June and July 2002. The FBI, like more than a dozen other U.S. government agencies, has had a policy against extending constitutional rights -- including the protection against self-incrimination, known as Miranda rights -- to Guantanamo prisoners since they were brought here from Afghanistan and other conflict areas in January 2002.

Crouch told the six-member jury how he built a trusting relationship with Hamdan during the marathon interrogation, bringing him special snacks and working to ease his "concerns," like letting his wife know that he was still alive.

In the first days of his talks with Hamdan, Crouch and two other FBI agents arranged for him to call his wife in Yemen. He had not been allowed to inform anyone of his whereabouts since his capture in southern Afghanistan on Nov. 24, 2001, at a roadblock manned by Afghans collaborating with U.S. forces. He then disappeared into the secret U.S. network of prisons and interrogation operations until his arrival here in May 2002.

"Mr. Hamdan cried quite a bit. He was very grateful for the opportunity to speak with his wife, mostly I would say grateful and relieved as well that the burden had been lifted. At least his wife knew he was alive," Crouch recalled.

The 10th U.S. federal agent to testify about information provided by Hamdan and now being used against him, Crouch also recounted how he lashed out against the Guantanamo detention officials when they moved Hamdan into solitary confinement during the FBI visits, leaving the prisoner to believe he was being punished for something. The agent complained to the Joint Task Force about the chilling effect the move was having on his work with Hamdan, and the prisoner was returned to a regular cell within 24 hours, Crouch said.

The agent was unaware, though, that during the night Hamdan was also brought to interrogators of another U.S. agency, which under the secrecy practices of the war-crimes court cannot be identified. Detention records handed over to defense lawyers only 12 hours before the trial started included an "SOP" -- standard operating procedure -- on how to exploit the disorientation felt by recently arrived detainees.

Defense lawyers attempted to shed some light on Hamdan's treatment in the hands of U.S. secret agents -- apparently from the CIA -- during nearly a month at the end of 2001 when his whereabouts haven't been accounted for. But a "protective order" from the court prohibits any mention of that period or agency.

The judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, ruled Monday, on the eve of the trial, that no statements from Hamdan during that period would be admitted because of the "highly coercive" conditions under which they were extracted.

Hamdan is charged with conspiracy and material support for terrorism, and could face a life sentence if convicted. .

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