Courtroom bumps for the war on terror
April 14, 2006
A terrorism trial of two Muslims in federal court in Sacramento has thus far left the FBI looking manipulative, credulous, and prodigiously extravagant.
At the center of the case are two Pakistanis living in Lodi, a small town south of Sacramento. One, 23-year-old Hamid Hayat, a cherry picker, stands accused of being a terrorist who trained at an Al Qaeda camp and returned to the United States to wreak havoc. The other, his 48-year-old father, Umer Hayat, an ice-cream truck driver, is charged with lying to the FBI about his son's activities. If found guilty, the son faces 39 years in prison, the father 16.
Their ordeal began last summer, when Hamid Hayat, fresh back from a two-year trip to Pakistan where he has spent half his life, was interrogated by the FBI. Soon his father was pulled in. When the indictments came down, the news headlines were that Hamid had attended a terror-training camp in Pakistan, that there was a terror ring centered in Lodi. Both father and son had made full confessions.
What's actually emerging in the trial, where both men are fortunate to have excellent lawyers (the son's attorney is a young Afghan-born woman in her first criminal trial), is a saga of FBI chicanery. It's become very clear from videotapes of the FBI's questioning that the men have very poor English. Their native tongue is Pashto. They understood little of what they were being asked and were mostly concerned with pleasing their interrogators. In the words of one courtroom reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, "they gave many answers that had been previously suggested by the agents -- who did most of the talking."
The son, in his five-hour videotaped confession, described a camp located on a mountaintop outside Balakot in the Northwest Frontier province, where he said 35 to 200 Pakistani men fired guns and exercised.
In contrast to his son's location of the camp on top of a mountain, the father said the one he visited was underground.
At this camp, said Hayat Sr., more than 1,000 men from around the world -- including white Americans -- fired high-powered rifles, swung curved swords, and learned to pole vault across bodies of water.
The reason the FBI had pulled in the Hayats was that the Bureau had established a tight professional relationship in Oregon with a sharp fellow of 32 called Naseem Khan.
FBI agents came to Khan's Oregon residence in 2001, not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, to investigate a different case in which there was a suspect with the same name. The agents established to their satisfaction that this Khan, a fast food worker, wasn't the man they wanted. Fortune favors those who seize opportunity. Khan pointed to an image of Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, that had come up on a news clip on his TV and said he'd seen him in Lodi in 1999.
The FBI pounced on this disclosure, and soon Khan was on the Bureau's payroll at $50,000 a year as an undercover informer, charged with returning to Lodi and probing the terror ring. To date the Bureau has paid him $250,000.
According to Khan, the quiet town of Lodi, Calif., was a rendezvous for several of the most wanted men on the planet. He'd seen Ayman al-Zawahiri in Lodi in 1999. "Every time I would go to the mosque [al-Zawahiri] would be coming or going," Khan claimed. The vigilant Khan had also noted the regular presence at the mosque of Abdelkarim Hussein Mohamed al-Nasser, a suspect in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers military housing complex in Saudi Arabia. And, to top it off, he said he had seen Ahmed Mohammed Hamed Ali, a suspect in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, in nearby Stockton in 1999.
For the prosecution, the problem regarding Khan's overall credibility was that the three terrorists identified by Khan as having been in Lodi on specific dates, were -- according to U.S. government officials -- not in the United States at those times.
Khan's credibility has taken some heavy punishment, but that aside, the government has failed to make an overpowering case, even with the videotaped confessions the defense say were extorted from the befuddled and uncomprehending Hayats. A juror who was excused by the judge because she'd failed to disclose a brief relationship to a sheriff's deputy in 1996 told reporters she was not persuaded by the government's case.
Muslims fear a conviction of the Hayats would unleash further prejudice and harassment. The case went to the jury April 12.
The case in Lodi is only one of several terror trials launched by the U.S. Justice in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that have left the prosecutors and the FBI looking bad. The Bureau's misidentification of a fingerprint taken from the bombing scene in Madrid led to efforts to put an innocent Portland lawyer in prison for a lengthy term. Eventually the case was thrown out after the Spanish police managed to make it clear that the fingerprint had absolutely nothing to do with any finger on either of Brandon Mayfield's hands. It turned out that the bombers in Madrid had nothing to with Al Qaeda.
In the Detroit "Koubriti" case involving the convictions of three Muslims -- a supposed terrorist "sleeper cell" -- in 2003, the sequel has been the release of the convicted men. In late March of this year, a grand jury issued an indictment of Richard Convertino, the former U.S. attorney, along with Harry Raymond Smith, a security official from the U.S. embassy in Amman.
In Florida, the widely publicized Sami al-Arian case ended with his acquittal on all the most serious charges. In the trial of Zacharias Moussaoui in Virginia, the prosecution were seconds from losing their case amid charges of witness tampering before the demented Frenchman made his bid for glory by alleging his target was the White House and his proclaimed accomplice Richard Reed, currently serving a life sentence for trying to board a plane with an explosive in his shoes. At least they did make that one stick, after a flight attendant did the crucial investigative work.
Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
COPYRIGHT 2006 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.
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