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Hamdan's lawyers want agent's testimony blocked

They seek to exclude an allegation that the suspect confessed to a Bin Laden oath, saying he had been coerced.

July 31, 2008|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA — Hoping to persuade a military judge to exclude a federal agent's key testimony in the trial of terrorism suspect Salim Ahmed Hamdan, defense lawyers Wednesday attempted to prove that coercive interrogation tactics were used on their client.

Counter-terrorism specialist Robert McFadden said that during an interrogation he had elicited a statement from the former driver for Osama bin Laden that he had pledged an oath of loyalty to the Al Qaeda leader. Hamdan -- captured in November 2001 in Afghanistan -- was interrogated more than 40 times, but McFadden was the only questioner who reported that Hamdan had confessed to having sworn loyalty.

Hamdan's May 2003 interviews by McFadden and then-FBI Al Qaeda expert Ali Soufan occurred a day after intelligence agents here had put the detainee on what was apparently a punishment regime and delivered him for late-night activities described in detention records only as "reservations."

The unusual handling of the defendant prior to the McFadden interview came a month after then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's memorandum authorizing harsh interrogation techniques for terrorism suspects. The defense also presented secret evidence apparently validating Hamdan's claims to have been subjected to sexual humiliation by a female intelligence agent.

McFadden's planned testimony that Hamdan told him he'd sworn bayat to Bin Laden could be crucial in the government's bid to cast the first war crimes defendant here as a committed supporter of the terrorist network, not just a $200-a-month servant.

Out of the jury's presence, McFadden was asked by defense attorney Harry H. Schneider Jr. whether he'd been sent to Guantanamo by the Pentagon to confirm and consolidate Hamdan's statements to numerous interrogators so that he could testify against Hamdan at trial because the veteran federal agent would make a good witness.

"To the first: yes. To the second: to be determined," McFadden told the military judge, Navy Capt. Keith J. Allred, provoking laughter throughout the courtroom.

Hamdan, a 38-year-old Yemeni, also took the witness stand briefly to deny that he ever told McFadden he'd sworn an oath of loyalty to Bin Laden. He insisted that he had spoken only with Soufan during the more-than-nine-hour interview and that despite Soufan's persistent questioning on the subject, he had never told him about swearing allegiance.

John Murphy, lead prosecutor in the case, told Allred that allegations of coercion had "cast a black cloud over these agents and those who work with the detainees" and that the judge should allow McFadden's testimony to dispel that taint.

The tribunal's deputy defense chief, Michael J. Berrigan, said the "black cloud" was the government's own creation and called the day's proceedings a farce.

Also Wednesday, the defense called an expert on Islamic militancy and Central Asia who walked the six-member military jury through Afghanistan's brutal and complicated recent history.

Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, described two largely separate Al Qaeda missions: supporting Islamic warriors and committing terrorist acts against enemy foreign states.

Hamdan was recruited for the former because he lacked the will for carrying out attacks and, having only a fourth-grade education, wasn't capable of joining the elite sleeper cells prepped for overseas terrorist strikes, Williams said.

"I don't see him being that quality of material," Williams said of Hamdan, referring to the engineers, pilots, linguists and technicians Bin Laden groomed for missions like Sept. 11 and the bombings in Madrid and London.

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carol.williams@latimes.com

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