ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
The trial of Salim Hamdan, one of Osama bin Laden's drivers, ended last week at Guantanamo, and it was a startling double defeat for the prosecution. Hamdan was acquitted of conspiring with al-Qaida to attack the U.S., and his five-and-a-half year sentence was only a fraction of what the prosecutor sought.
NPR's John McChesney has this exclusive interview with a member of the military jury that decided Hamdan's fate.
JOHN McCHESNEY: We spoke with a Marine Lieutenant Colonel who asked us not to use his last name because it might endanger him on his next deployment, so we'll just call him Colonel Patrick. He's not stepping across any legal line in talking with us. Judge Keith Allred, a Navy captain, said jury members could discuss the case as they didn't talk about the opinions of other members or discuss classified matters. The first thing Colonel Patrick said to us questioned the government's judgment in going after Hamdan in its first trial.
"Colonel PATRICK" (U.S. Marines): This is kind of like using the hand grenade on the horsefly. If you throw the book at this guy, then what do you do when there's, there are plenty of guys down there that we would all consider to be the really bad guys that need to have the book thrown at them. But if you do, you know, a 30-year minimum, which was the prosecution's request, and they would've preferred life, where do you step up from that?
McCHESNEY: The prosecution did its best to show Salim Hamdan as a hardened al-Qaida warrior who had taken a personal bayat, or oath of loyalty, to al-Qaida.
Lt. Col. PATRICK: In none of the evidence presented did you ever see him brandishing a weapon at all. Even when he was captured, the evidence all showed that, yes, there was an AK47 or some weapon right there on the front seat. Guys in front of him, the guys behind him in those other vehicles employed weapons in one way, shape, or another. He bailed out of the car and ran.
McCHESNEY: The defense argued that Hamdan had been cooperative with his interrogators, giving up intelligence about al-Qaida. The prosecution for its part showed a video of Hamdan immediately after his capture in which he appears to resist answering questions. Colonel Patrick says the jury accepted the defense argument that Hamdan didn't know if he was going to be killed by the Afghans who had captured him at that point.
Lt. Col. PATRICK: When he knows that he's in U.S. hands, you know, and he's relatively secure that nobody's going to bring harm to him or his family, there was kind of a sense that the level of cooperation changed - and that's very understandable, again, from our point of view as armed forces members.
McCHESNEY: Colonel Patrick says he never wants soldiers surrendering to U.S. forces to feel that they might be penalized for cooperating. And he said other panel members felt the same way. The defense said that Hamdan cooperated fully during this period and the U.S. squandered an opportunity - a possible reference to Hamdan's knowledge of bin Laden's location. The testimony came up in closed session. I asked Colonel Patrick about it.
Lt. Col. PATRICK: Nope, sorry. Not going there on that one.
McCHESNEY: Did the panel feel that the military commissions were illegitimate legal proceedings, as the defense repeatedly asserted, because the defendants were denied certain rights allowed under traditional military or civilian trials?
Lt. Col. PATRICK: We try to stay neutral on that. It is what it is. It was the framework which we were told to operate in, it's different than a regular court-martial type proceedings. We understood that from the get-go, you know. We understood the judge's instructions.
McCHESNEY: In his closing remarks, prosecutor John Murphy made an impassioned plea to the jury not to return Salim Hamdan to the streets of Yemen, saying that Hamdan represented a threat to the safety of the United States.
Lt. Col. PATRICK: The general feeling is, okay, odds that this guy is going to go back after what's been publicly reported about his cooperation, do you really think they're going to take him back in with open arms even if he felt any inclination whatsoever to go back? Which I, we don't think he did.
McCHESNEY: Salim Hamdan is still classified as an unlawful combatant by the Bush administration, and as such, could be detained indefinitely in spite of his short sentence. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick said that the jury would be extremely annoyed if that happened. After all, he said, what did we come down here for?
John McChesney, NPR News.
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