Differing Portrayals Of Bin Laden's Driver At Trial

This was has been the first of Salim Hamdan's trial at Guantanamo Bay. The prosecution has presented Osama bin Laden's driver as an insider in the al-Qaida leader's inner circle. The defense, however, has portrayed Hamdan as a poorly paid employee.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. At Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the first week of a historic trial has come to a close. Salim Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden, is the focus of the first war crimes trial since the end of World War II.

Hamdan is charged with giving material aid to terrorism and being involved in a terrorist conspiracy. NPR's John McChesney is at Guantanamo and joins us now. And John, how has the prosecution been presenting Salim Hamdan?

JOHN McCHESNEY: Well, they've been presenting him as an insider in bin Laden's circle. Ten or 11 FBI agents have testified this week about their interrogations with Hamdan, and the most damning evidence so far is that they found two surface-to-air missiles in his car when he was captured.

They also found a note asking him to transport ammunition for al-Qaeda, and that's the hardest evidence produced so far. They've also portrayed him, as I said, as a member of bin Laden's inner circle. He overheard conversations about the embassy bombings in East Africa, about the U.S.S. Cole and 9/11, and the prosecution said, hey, he didn't quit.

By the way, I have to add here, he was interrogated at least 40 times by different kinds of interrogators, and some of these interrogations went on for days, if not weeks, and the court was shown a video of the interrogations carried out by military personnel in the town when he was captured. They were done right after he was captured.

BLOCK: It was at one point this week when the jury was watching one of these videotaped interrogations that Salim Hamdan walked out of the trial. What happened?

McCHESNEY: Right, he got up and he left. He apologized. He said I can't, I'm sorry, and he left the room and came back the next day, wanting to apologize to the jury, but the prosecution wouldn't let him.

BLOCK: What's the defense portrayal of Salim Hamdan been this week, John? If the government's saying he was an insider, what's the defense saying?

McCHESNEY: They're saying he was a low, salaried employee, that he wasn't ever a member of al-Qaeda. He was one of seven drivers, and he wasn't an intimate associate of bin Laden, and they say the missile launchers were in a borrowed vehicle. He said that he borrowed that car.

They've also portrayed him as a very, very cooperative government witness in all of these interrogations that have taken place, and none of the agents here who have testified have disagreed with that except to say that sometimes he seemed to hold back some things.

He took FBI agents on tours of Kandahar and pointed out al-Qaeda facilities and safe houses. He helped them identify al-Qaeda members, and all the agents who have testified have described him as a very cordial, congenial and cooperative witness.

BLOCK: It's interesting, John, because the defense lawyers have been pointing out that Salim Hamdan was never told that these statements he was making to investigators could be used against him in court.

McCHESNEY: That's right, he wasn't told that, and he was not told that he had a right to have an attorney, and the justification for that was that these were intelligence-gathering interrogations. They weren't leading to a criminal investigation. They weren't a criminal investigation, so they didn't have to Mirandize him, and furthermore, the government officials say they don't have to read Miranda rights to anyone outside the United States.

BLOCK: John, Salim Hamdan cooperated with investigators, is now on trial. There were other detainees who said nothing and have been set free from Guantanamo. Has the jury heard that?

McCHESNEY: They have. In fact, Hamdan's boss, the head of security for Osama bin Laden, was released. He was a Moroccan. He's free, walking the streets of Morocco right now, and the defense has raised the issue of why is he out, and why is Hamdan being tried when he was a subordinate to this guy?

BLOCK: NPR's John McChesney in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, covering the military trial of Salim Hamdan. John, thanks so much.

McCHESNEY: Thank you, Melissa.

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