Local officials unaware of tapes found in Spain in 2002
By John Solomon, The Associated Press
Tapes of New York City landmarks, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and the World Trade Center -- as well as surveillance of casinos in Las Vegas, were filmed by al-Qaeda and found in a 2002 raid in Madrid.
The department's terrorism unit "provided no help of any kind in this prosecution," the U.S. attorney's office in Detroit wrote in one of the memos, which detail bitter divisions between front-line prosecutors and their superiors in Washington.
The Detroit case ended last summer with the convictions, hailed by the 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 acquitted, 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 evidence from being shown to jurors.
"We were butting heads vigorously with narrow-shouldered bureaucrats in Washington," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino. He is the lead Detroit prosecutor who is now under investigation in Washington.
"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.
Prosecutors obtained a videotape showing that an al-Qaida cell broken up by Spanish authorities in 2002 in Madrid had video surveillance of the same American landmarks that were found on a video with the Detroit cell.
Justice officials declined comment, citing a partial gag order the judge has imposed in the Detroit case. But internal memos show Washington criticized the Detroit prosecutors as "not adequately supervised" and providing "minimal" cooperation.
The Spanish and Detroit tapes show surveillance of casinos in Las Vegas, landmarks in New York, including the World Trade Center, and Disneyland in California. Both tapes showed nearly identical footage of security, information on how cars could access the landmarks, and other footage that could be useful for staging an attack.
Reached at home Sunday evening, Undersheriff Doug Gillespie said Las Vegas police had reviewed at length last year the videotape used in the Detroit prosecution, which included images of the MGM Grand and Disneyland.
"That appeared to only be a tourist-type video, and this is the first I'm aware of any references to other Las Vegas videotapes" held by possible terrorists, said Gillespie, the second-in-command of Nevada's largest law enforcement agency.
Agents with the Las Vegas field office of the FBI were unaware of a second videotape.
"We're well aware of the previous surveillance, and this may be similar footage to that," said Special Agent Dave Nanz, a spokesman for the office.
The undersheriff said police detectives assigned to the regional Joint Terrorism Task Force would seek a copy of the Madrid footage this morning.
"We will aggressively pursue any new information, and I would hope that our federal counterparts would allow us access to it to determine its validity," Gillespie said.
The trial in Detroit last year caused a dust-up between Las Vegas police and federal law enforcement after the government's key witness told jurors the four defendants were Islamic extremists who were planning attacks on Las Vegas, Disneyland, U.S. air bases and other targets.
Government witness Youssef Hmimssa, who delivered his testimony as part of a plea agreement, said one of the defendants referred to Las Vegas as the "city of Satan" and was disgusted by Muslims engaging in sinful behavior here.
Las Vegas police, and officials with the Las Vegas offices of the U.S. attorney and the FBI, were blindsided by Hmimssa's testimony, first learning of it in an April 2003 account published by the Review-Journal.
On the day the story appeared, Young blasted the Detroit offices of the FBI and the U.S. attorney for not notifying Las Vegas authorities before Hmimssa took the stand that he would testify that terrorists had targeted Las Vegas.
"They had information that could have a detrimental impact on a community 2,500 miles away, and I don't think they cared enough to share it, and that makes me angry," the sheriff said at the time.
The Spanish tape, which dated to 1997, included "footage of several potential targets of al-Qaida" and was carried by courier to al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan, according to Spanish documents provided to U.S. authorities.
Prosecutors obtained the Spanish footage from a Justice Department terrorism expert weeks before the trial and created several slides that would identify for jurors the numerous similarities between the Detroit and Madrid videos.
"The Detroit cell and the Spanish tapes identify three identical targets for surveillance," said one of the slides, which jurors never saw. A different slide said the two tapes follow the al-Qaida training manual because "surveillance is inserted into seemingly innocent tourist videos."
The Spanish tapes show an al-Qaida operative panning the World Trade Center and shooting the skyline that the eventual Sept. 11 hijackers used to fly their planes into the towers. The operative even puts his arm around a famous statute outside the towers and around the statue of a bull near Wall Street.
Both tapes have extensive footage of Hollywood, Disneyland and Las Vegas casinos. "Let's go to the hotel since we finished filming the casinos and we made $100,000 tonight," the Spanish operative says on one of the tapes, according to transcripts made available by Spanish authorities.
Prosecutors were told by superiors they could not introduce the Spanish tape unless they went through a lengthy bureaucratic process, known as the Letters Rogatory, that establishes chain of custody for foreign evidence.
The process would take months to complete through diplomatic channels.
In another example of the prosecution being hindered, the FBI had learned before the trial that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, al-Qaida's training camp chief, told interrogators after his capture that bin Laden had authorized an attack on the Incirlik air base in Turkey where U.S. 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 U.S. jets. Al-Libi's testimony would have connected the Detroit defendants to a planned al-Qaida attack, Convertino said.
But al-Libi was "spirited off from Afghanistan to Egypt, and we were not able to interview him or use him as a witness," Convertino said.
Turkish authorities recently said that their evidence shows bin Laden authorized an attack on the base but later abandoned the plan because security was heightened. U.S. officials raised security at Incirlik within days of the Detroit discovery, Air Force officials say.
Other disputes among authorities reached high into the Justice Department.
The FBI had identified three witnesses -- a landlord, a Jordanian informant and a prison inmate -- who linked the Detroit cell members to the FBI's No. 27 listed al-Qaida figure, Nabil al-Marabh. The prosecutors wanted to charge al-Marabh as a fifth defendant.
But Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Nahmias balked. "My understanding is that the only connection between al-Marabh and your case was an apparent misidentification by a landlord," Nahmias wrote.
A few months later, the government deported al-Marabh to freedom in his home country of Syria.
Other memos show the chief of the organized-crime strike force in Detroit, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Corbett, challenged the judgment of Justice's terrorism chief, Barry Sabin.
"I see no reason to listen to petty bureaucratic complaints by people who will not and could not try the case," Corbett wrote. "Sorry if this response seems impolite, but I have had it with Barry Sabin."
When Washington evaluated the Detroit office as uncooperative after the trial, Detroit responded.
The Justice lawyer sent from Washington to help told his Detroit colleagues "he had no intention of participating in the trial" and refused to help when an urgent issue arose involving a witness and the State Department, the Detroit office wrote.
Meanwhile, in another al-Qaida link to Nevada, one of the dozen terrorism suspects arrested in Great Britain last week was charged by federal officials in Connecticut on Friday with setting up Web sites through servers in Connecticut and Nevada to raise money for the Taliban and Chechen rebels. Babar Ahmad's sites described how to smuggle cash into Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces in late 2001 by claiming it was for charity, according to a complaint unsealed Friday.
Ahmad is the cousin of Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was arrested last month in Pakistan. Khan's computers carried surveillance of five financial buildings in New York, Newark and Washington and prompted the Department of Homeland Security to elevate the threat alert level to orange.
Review-Journal writer J.M. Kalil contributed to this report.