Credibility of Witness in Terror Trial Under Fire

Two men from the Northern California mountain town of Lodi are on trial for terrorism-related charges — but the government's key witness is now having a credibility problem. Naseem Kahn testified he saw three top al-Qaida figures in Lodi in the late 1990s, but now that claim is being met with skepticism. Madeleine Brand speaks with Los Angeles Times reporter Rone Tempest, covering the trial in Sacramento.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up: a mysterious illness in Chechnya. The victims are children, mostly girls. What is happening?

BRAND: But first, two men from Lodi, California are on trial in Sacramento on terrorism-related charges, but the government's key witness is experiencing a credibility problem. Naseem Kahn worked as an undercover FBI informant, befriending and taping conversations he had with the suspects. Those conversations form the basis of the government's case.

And now, at the trial, Kahn shocked the courtroom when he testified that he saw three top al-Qaida figures in Lodi in the late 1990s, including Osama bin Laden's right hand man, Ayman al-Zawahri. But most experts, including those in the government, don't believe al-Zawahri was anywhere near Lodi then, and that he hadn't been in the United States for years.

Here to tell us more about this government witness Naseem Kahn is L.A. Times reporter Rone Tempest. And Rone Tempest, first, tell us about the trial quickly. What are the two men accused of?

Mr. RONE TEMPEST (Reporter, L.A. Times): Well, the two men are father and son. A Lodi ice cream truck driver Umer Hayat is 48, and his son Hamid Hayat, who's 23, are charged with lying to the FBI about the younger Hayat's participation in a training camp in Pakistan in late 2003. And the younger Hayat is also charged with providing material support for terrorism by attending the camp.

BRAND: And that charge was brought about mainly through conversations he had with the government informant Naseem Kahn.

Mr. TEMPEST: Well, I think that and his, quote, "confession," close quote, that he uttered to FBI agents after several hours of interrogation.

BRAND: Well, tell us more about Naseem Kahn and how he was able to infiltrate the Lodi Muslim community.

Mr. TEMPEST: Well, to understand Naseem Kahn, you have to understand the why and the when. And the when was in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, when the FBI was being criticized for not having enough intelligence resources in Muslim communities. And the why was that, you know, they were under a lot of pressure to go out and find these resources. So, in Bend, Oregon, where there aren't many Muslims, just a handful, the FBI agents came up with Naseem Kahn and went by initially to interview his as a suspect.

BRAND: What was Naseem Kahn doing in Bend, Oregon?

Mr. TEMPEST: Well, he had wandered there. He's an immigrant from Pakistan. He was born in Peshawar. He'd moved to the United States when he was 16-years-old, and after attending high school briefly in Texas, had a series of fast food jobs and convenience stores. Settled in California, was living in Lodi when a couple from Oregon came through his convenience store late one night, and they struck up a conversation and the couple invited him to visit them in Oregon.

And he took them up on it. so, he moved up there, stayed with the family for a couple of months, and then went back to working at a Taco Bell as an Assistant Manager, and then eventually at a convenience store at the time of September 11th.

BRAND: And so, the FBI comes up to Bend, Oregon, interviews him, and rules him out as a suspect, and then they think hey, he would make a good informant. Is that what happened?

Mr. TEMPEST: Well, he was an eager interview for them. And I don't think they had many of those. He had already expressed an interest in law enforcement. He had friends in the police department in Bend, Oregon.

So, he was very open and eager, and after he was sort of dismissed as a suspect, he wanted to please the agents. He wanted to show his willingness to cooperate, so he began talking about his experiences at a mosque in Lodi, where he lived from 1998 to '99.

He was so anxious to give them something to work with, and so happy to be interviewed, that he volunteered that he had seen the al-Qaida number two al-Zawahri in Lodi in 1998 and '99, and two other high ranking al-Qaida operatives, at a time which they almost certainly wouldn't have been there.

And even though there were a lot of other indicators that the report wasn't true, I think the FBI was impressed by his eagerness and willingness, and they saw him as somebody that they could control and use to their benefit in gathering intelligence and infiltrating the Muslim community in Lodi.

BRAND: So, as it stands now, Naseem Kahn is still the government's star witness?

Mr. TEMPEST: He's their star witness for sure, yeah. And he's been a good witness on the stand, actually. He--I was joking with some of the FBI agents yesterday, that he was doing a better job than they were on the stand. He's good looking, he's got great posture, he responds without any kind of emotion to the questions. He's being an excellent witness for them, I have to say, despite the absurdity of some of his claims.

BRAND: L.A. Times reporter Rone Tempest. Thank you.

Mr. TEMPEST: You're welcome.

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