Driver told FBI bin Laden's escape was fault of U.S.

 

crosenberg@MiamiHerald.com

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- In his seventh of month of U.S. captivity, Osama bin Laden's driver told a pair of FBI agents that it was America's fault that the al Qaeda leader is alive.

The message was, ''You had these opportunities, America. You didn't do anything,'' FBI agent George Crouch Jr. testified Friday at Salim Hamdan's war-crimes trial.

The United States could have killed bin Laden in Khartoum, Sudan, before he moved to Afghanistan in 1996, Hamdan told his interrogators. They could have killed him after al Qaeda's 1998 U.S. twin bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Or after the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, in Aden, Yemen, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead.

Instead, ''bin Laden was emboldened.'' So he struck with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And nearly 3,000 people died.

Crouch was paraphrasing a portion of a nearly two-week interrogation he conducted here at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, in June 2002, around the time that FBI agents arranged Hamdan's first call home.

They let the Yemeni speak to his wife for up to 10 minutes with a satellite phone outside an interrogator trailer at Camp Delta. He told her for the first time that he was alive. Then he cried.

The driver appeared to pay intense attention to much of the testimony.

Thursday's session had ended 30 minutes early because guards passed a note to the military judge that Hamdan, 37, was running a fever. He went from the war court to the prison camps' hospital and was found ''in good health, with no acute medical conditions,'' said Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum. Then he spent the night in his solitary steel-and-concrete cell.

Crouch cast the telephone call as a turning point.

The man accused of providing material support for terror and conspiracy in a six-year string of terror attacks, ''cried quite a bit,'' the FBI agent testified, and he began to tell his story more freely, particularly to a Lebanese-born FBI agent named Ali Soufan.

''Mr. Hamdan gave us a lot of good information,'' Crouch said, and was consistently ''polite'' and ``respectful.''

Interrogations became so congenial, Crouch said, that they brought him pizza and subs, and the Yemeni learned something every American teenager knows: McDonald's french fries ``are not good cold.''

Through testimony in the first week of the up-to-month-long military commission, defense attorneys this week sought to cast Hamdan as a cooperative captive who had helped the United States in its war-on-terrorism effort at a time when hard-core terrorists were resisting.

As though to accentuate their point, they got in the court record through cross-examination that the chief bodyguard in bin Laden's security detail was held at Guantánamo, defiant of his interrogators and sent home to Morocco in 2004.

Prosecutors dispute the notion that Hamdan was a bit player, and have cast him as not only a driver and sometime bodyguard but also a Taliban-al Qaeda weapons runner.

Moreover, Justice Department prosecutor John Murphy, on loan to the Pentagon, sought to shift the blame back on the Yemeni father of two with a fourth-grade education facing the first U.S. war-crimes trial since World War II.

Of al Qaeda, he asked Crouch: ``Does its success rest upon certain members doing certain tasks?''

''Without people willing to do logistics and more menial tasks,'' he replied, ``al Qaeda as we know it couldn't exist. Without people like Mr. Hamdan, bin Laden would enjoy no support. He would not enjoy protection, and he would probably not have been able to elude capture to this point.''

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