Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Infighting mars US terrorist hunt

NO COOPERATION As an investigation proceeds that could overturn terror convictions, prosecutors say they got no help from the Justice Department


Behind the scenes of the first major terror trial after Sept. 11, frontline prosecutors complained bitterly they had not received needed help from the Justice Department and were prevented from introducing some of their most dramatic evidence in the courtroom, internal memos show.

As a result, jurors in the trial of four men accused of operating a terror cell in Detroit never heard testimony from an Osama bin Laden lieutenant or saw video footage of European operatives casing US landmarks. Prosecutors believed both would have connected the defendants to al-Qaeda.

The department's terrorism unit "provided no help of any kind in this prosecution," the US Attorney's office in Detroit wrote in one memo, claiming that superiors in Washington hindered the case and sent a lawyer who chose to play basketball rather than assist prosecutors at trial.

The Detroit case ended last summer with the convictions, lauded by the George W. Bush administration, of three men who were accused of operating a sleeper terror cell that possessed plans for attacks around the world.

A fourth defendant was acquit-ted, however, and only two of the four men originally arrested were convicted of terrorism charges. Now the convictions are in jeopardy because of an internal investigation into allegations that defense lawyers were denied evidence that could have helped them.

Whatever the outcome, internal documents and more than three dozen interviews with current and former officials detail how the differences between Washington and the field office kept important evidence from being shown to jurors.

"We were butting heads vigorously with narrow-shouldered bureaucrats in Washington," said Assistant US Attorney Richard Convertino, the lead Detroit prosecutor. He now is under investigation by superiors in the capital.

"There was a series of evidence, pieces of evidence, that we wanted to get into our trial that we were unable to do. Things that would have strengthened the case immeasurably, and made the case much stronger, exponentially," Convertino said.

For instance, the FBI had learned before the trial that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, al-Qaeda's training camp chief, told interrogators after his capture that bin Laden had authorized an attack on the Incirlik air base in Turkey where US military jets flew missions over Iraq for the past decade, Convertino said.

The interrogation was deemed important because the FBI found in the Detroit terror cell's apartment sketches of the same Turkish base, including flight patterns of US jets. Al-Libi's testimony would have connected the Detroit defendants to a planned al-Qaeda attack, Convertino said.

But, he said, al-Libi was "spirited off from Afghanistan to Egypt and we were not able to interview him or use him as a witness."

Turkish authorities recently said that their own evidence shows bin Laden personally authorized an attack on the base but later abandoned the plan. US officials raised security at Incirlik within days of the Detroit discovery, Air Force officials say.

Justice officials declined comment, citing a partial gag order the trial judge has imposed in the Detroit case. But internal memos show Washington frequently criticized the Detroit prosecutors as "not adequately supervised" and providing "minimal" cooperation.

In another example, prosecutors obtained a videotape showing that an al-Qaeda cell broken up by Spanish authorities in 2002 had video surveillance of the same US landmarks that were found on a video with the Detroit cell.

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