A man shown in a videotape of landmarks in New York, Las Vegas and California has told investigators the tape was an amateur film and not surveillance as prosecutors portrayed at the trial of four suspected terrorists last year, Justice Department (search) officials and lawyers said Wednesday night.
The witness interview was conducted in January, months after the trial in Detroit ended, and was turned over this summer to defense lawyers. It could deal a significant blow to the Bush administration's first major terror prosecution since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The Justice Department is nearing completion of a months-long review of prosecutors' conduct during the case, and a judge will rule on a defense request to reverse the convictions of three men.
"During the course of this review, information has come to the government's attention that we were obligated to turn over the defense, and we did so," Justice spokesman Mark Corallo said Wednesday night. "The review is ongoing and at the end of the day, the government will do the right thing based on the facts and the evidence."
Though both sides have known about the witness interview for some time, they were precluded from disclosing it because of a judge's gag order. Both sides confirmed it Wednesday after the judge lifted the gag order because one of the original prosecutors in the case, Richard Convertino, granted an interview to The Associated Press this week.
James Thomas (search), a lawyer for one of the Detroit defendants, said the new witness testimony undercuts one of the key pieces of evidence used against his clients. "It was an amateurish video taken by school kids," Thomas said.
Justice officials said their review has turned up several problems with the original prosecution.
"Since the discovery of the tape in Detroit in 2001 and up until recently, the Justice Department's experts believed the footage was terrorist surveillance," but the new information has caused them to re-evaluate, a Justice official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because the internal investigation is still under way.
William Sullivan, a lawyer for trial prosecutor Richard Convertino, said his client had shown the tape to numerous Justice experts who told him it was consistent with other terror surveillance, and "he was never presented with any evidence that contradicted those experts' assessments." Convertino is now under investigation in the case.
In a jury verdict last summer hailed by the Bush administration as the breakup of a terror cell, Karim Koubriti (search), 25, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi (search), 38, were convicted on terrorism and fraud charges and Ahmed Hannan (search), 36, was convicted of fraud. A fourth defendant, Farouk Ali-Haimoud (search), 24, was acquitted.
The convictions have been in doubt for months after Justice officials divulged some documents that might have been helpful to defense lawyers weren't turned over during the trial, and they removed the original prosecutors and put them under investigation.
An FBI agent and other experts put on by the prosecution at the trial said the tape appeared to be casing footage consistent with the way radical Muslim groups have taught operatives to conduct surveillance.
But the defense has argued the tape belonged to someone else and showed innocent tourism footage.
Justice officials said while the belated witness testimony calls into question the Detroit tape, a second tape found by Spanish authorities in an al-Qaida hide-out in Madrid back in 2002 that shows many of the same landmarks is still regarded by U.S. officials as terror surveillance.
Both tapes, obtained by the AP and aired nationally this week, show footage of casino hotels in Las Vegas, Disneyland in California and several landmarks in New York, including the Twin Towers before they were attacked.
The AP reported this week that Justice Department documents from the time of the Detroit trial show repeated friction between Washington and Detroit kept the government from showing the Spanish videotape and other evidence to the jury.
In an interview with the AP, Convertino alleged that "narrow-shouldered bureaucrats" in Washington kept him from putting on a stronger case. Convertino also alleged that Las Vegas authorities decided for economic reasons not to warn the public in 2002 that Detroit and Spanish terror cells had footage of the casinos that experts regarded as surveillance.
Las Vegas authorities acknowledged they were shown both tapes back in 2002 but said their decision not to warn the public had nothing to do with economics. "There are many factors that impact upon decisions pertaining to the type and quality of information that should be disseminated ... but the monetary impact of the information upon the local economy is not one of them," the U.S. attorney's office in Las Vegas said Wednesday.
While Las Vegas authorities didn't issue a warning, California officials who were told about the same Spanish video footage, which included the Golden Gate Bridge, decided back in 2002 to issue a public alert.