Book Examines Case Against Bin Laden's Driver

Writer Jonathan Mahler is the author of the new book, The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight over Presidential Power. He says Osama bin Laden's message, as well having a purpose and earning good money appealed to Salim Hamdan, an uneducated Yemeni.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

How did an unschooled, poor, minivan driver from the deserts of Yemen become a driver for Osama bin Laden and ultimately the plaintiff in one of the most important Supreme Court cases in recent history?

P: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight over Presidential Power." Mahler says Hamdan was recruited for jihad in Yemen at age 26, went to Afghanistan, and was drawn by Osama bin Laden's message.

JONATHAN MAHLER: It appealed to Hamdan in part because, you know, here was an uneducated Yemeni, who was living an aimless life in Yemen, had, you know, only a part-time job, spent most of his time chewing cud and hanging out in a boarding house he slept in or in front of a mosque with really nothing to do.

And the idea of having a kind of purpose, a mission was, I think, appealing to him. And also, frankly, I think the fact that he was going to be earning a salary was appealing to him because he wasn't making much money in Yemen.

BLOCK: It's not every jihadi who becomes a driver for Osama bin Laden or a bodyguard as, by some accounts, he was. What made him get that close to the leader of al-Qaida?

MAHLER: Certainly, he was there for a number of years, beginning in 1996 and continuing through 2001. So longevity was certainly a factor. But I think also - not to get too psychoanalytical here - but Hamdan was orphaned at an early age. He kind of drifted around Yemen before going off to jihad. And he's the kind of person who's naturally drawn to strong personalities. I think that he liked kind of being under bin Laden's wing in a sense.

BLOCK: Hamdan is captured in Afghanistan in November of 2001 and is ultimately taken to Guantanamo Bay. And you spoke with the FBI interrogator, Ali Soufan. What did he tell you about the information that he was gleaning from Salim Hamdan and how valuable he was?

MAHLER: Soufan found Hamdan to be very helpful, actually. And I think they developed something of a relationship. Soufan - his partner used to bring him Filet-O-Fish sandwiches from McDonald's down there and car and truck magazines, which Hamdan apparently loved. And Hamdan, in fact, was very cooperative. He identified photographs of bodyguards down on Guantanamo and he also helped piece together bin Laden's - kind of the travelogue of bin Laden's kind of odyssey around Afghanistan where bin Laden had been and where he might go.

So he was, in fact, so cooperative that Soufan was thinking he would make a great material witness in the cases of some bigger al-Qaida guys. But in fact, the government decided to try Hamdan himself.

BLOCK: You write a lot about Salim Hamdan's relationship with his defense attorneys and Neal Katyal and also the Navy JAG, Charles Swift. I want you to talk a bit about how they were able to gain his trust.

MAHLER: Well, Swift was appointed by the Pentagon to represent Hamdan as soon as he was designated for these military tribunals. And not surprisingly, here's a guy who's been in U.S. custody for a couple of years now, has been interrogated dozens of times, and he's thinking, yeah, sure, you're my defense attorney. So it took Swift quite a long time to earn Hamdan's trust.

And actually, it's funny, in one of their very first meetings, their second meeting, in fact, Swift had told Hamdan that, listen, I'm going to - I intend to vigorously defend you. And part of that defense is going to entail suing my commander in chief, President Bush, if you're game, over the legality of these military tribunals. And at the end of the meeting, as Swift was getting up to leave to fly back to Virginia, he said to Hamdan, so do you trust me? Do you believe I'm here to help you? And Hamdan said, a drowning man will cling to any hand that's extended to him.

BLOCK: Hamdan's name, of course, is on the Supreme Court ruling, in this case, that came out in 2006. And as you write, that really was not just about military commissions. It was about, in your words, nothing less than the president's obligation to comply with the law. And you described his lawyers bringing a copy of that Supreme Court opinion, this major opinion, down to Guantanamo to show to Salim Hamdan. What happened?

MAHLER: Well, Hamdan initially, of course, was unable to understand. He's a man with a fourth-grade education who comes from a country with a observed sharia law, so all of this law was really lost on Hamdan for quite a while. But over time, he began to kind of understand what was at stake in his case. And so he was feeling pretty good about things for a little while, but then, of course what happened is that the Bush administration went to Congress to ask it to authorize these military tribunals. And he's on trial now.

BLOCK: If you look at the bill that was approved by Congress that authorizes these commissions now, it's pretty much identical to what the Supreme Court invalidated in the Hamdan case. So what do you think, ultimately, is the legacy of that ruling and any impact that'll have in the future?

MAHLER: Yeah. Well, certainly, that's true. I mean, the Supreme Court has, in fact, already ruled the Military Commissions Act was unconstitutional in the Boumediene case recently. And there will be more challenges after the verdict in Hamdan's cases is rendered this week. Certainly his lawyers - if he is found guilty and I think we all probably assume he will be - his lawyers are going to bring their challenge right back to federal court. So it's very hard to say where things are going to go, but certainly the fight over the legitimacy of these tribunals is certainly not over simply because they're taking place.

BLOCK: Jonathan Mahler is author of "The Challenge: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and the Fight over Presidential Power." Jonathan, thanks very much.

MAHLER: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.