By Carol Rosenberg | 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 Qaida leader was 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 Qaida’s 1998 twin bombings at the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Or after the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, at the port of Aden in Yemen, which left 17 U.S. sailors dead.
Instead, ”Bin Laden was emboldened.” So he struck with the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, leaving nearly 3,000 dead.
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 an Arabic-speaking FBI agent, Ali Soufan, arranged Hamdan’s first call home.
The agents let the Yemeni captive make the five-to 10-minute call with a satellite phone outside an interrogator trailer at Camp Delta. For the first time, he told his wife that he was alive. Then he cried.
Through much of Friday’s testimony, the driver watched rapt.
Thursday’s session had ended 30 minutes early because guards passed a note to the military judge that Hamdan was running a fever. He went from the court to the prison camps’ hospital where he was found ”in good health, with no acute medical conditions,” said Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum, a Pentagon spokeswoman. Then he was returned for the night to his solitary steel and cement cell.
Crouch cast the June 2002 telephone call as a turning point.
Hamdan, who’s accused of providing material support for terror and conspiracy in a six-year string of terror attacks, was captured at a Northern Alliance roadblock in Takt-a-pol, Afghanistan in November 2001.
In U.S. custody, according to testimony, he was shuttled to the Pansjhir Valley, Bagram and Kandahar, all in Afghanistan, and interrogated by an alphabet soup of U.S. agencies — the FBI, NYPD, NCIS, and OGA — and other government agencies, usually the CIA.
Then he came to Guantanamo in late April 2002. But never saw lawyer, or got a telephone call.
Afterward, ”he cried quite a bit,” the FBI agent testified,and the information flowed more freely, particularly with the Lebanese-born 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 he learned something every adolescent in America 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’d helped the United States in its war on terror at a time when hard core terrorists were resisting.
As though to accentuate their point, they got onto the court record through cross-examination that the chief bodyguard in Bin Laden’s security detail was held at Guantanamo, defiant of his interrogators and sent home to Morocco in 2004.
Prosecutors dispute the notion that Hamdan was a small fry, and have cast him as not only a driver and sometime bodyguard but also a Taliban-al Qaida 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. crimes trial since World War II.
Of al Qaida, 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 Qaida 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.”