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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With James Harrington, Solomon Wisenberg

Aired May 13, 2003 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to start this hour with a development in Buffalo, New York that you probably haven't heard about. A man there who attended an al Qaeda training camp has made a deal with prosecutors. He'll most likely go to prison for about eight years. Rich Newberg of CNN affiliate WIBB has the story.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICH NEWBERG, WIBB CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Twenty-five-year- old Yassin Taher, a father of a 3-year-old son and former co-captain of the Lackawana high school soccer team admitted that he knowingly attended the Al Farouk al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and performed guard duty there.

RODNEY PERSONIUS, TAHER'S ATTORNEY: He regrets what he did. He regrets not only from the perspective of how it appears in terms of his allegiance to this country, but also what it's done to his family.

NEWBERG: Family members and friends were emotional after the guilty plea. Some relatives and even his attorney wanted Taher to go to trial, testing a law that makes attending a training camp a violent crime. But he could have faced stiffer charges if he did not take the guilty plea.

MOHAMMED ALBANNA, AMERICAN MUSLIM COUNCIL: You had the enemy combatant, over you had the threat of enemy combatant treason, and other charges. I guess in the situation (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with the terrorist and all that stuff, I guess he ultimately thought that this is the best route for him and for his family.

NEWBERG: Taher said he did not understand the words of Osama bin Laden when the al Qaeda leader addressed the recruits at the camp, because Taher does not speak Arabic. But he did admit hearing one trainee ask for volunteers for suicide missions.

WILLIAM HOCHUL, PROSECUTOR: In addition for receiving training at the Al Farouk camp, there was one person who was seeking volunteers for suicide missions, and that is part of the plea agreement, and that's something Mr. Taher admitted today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: That report is by Rich Newberg of CNN affiliate WIVB.

We want to get some more comments right now from two attorneys at the case, of course, that we've been talking about, has prompted a lot of questions, questions about whether U.S. anti-terror laws go too far. Should just listening to America's enemies be a crime? Is that un-American, or is it only the way to defend America these days?

James Harrington defended one of the Lackawana six. He joins us from Buffalo. In Washington, we have former federal prosecutor Solomon Wisenberg. Gentlemen, thanks for being with us, both of you.

James, I want to start off with you. Your client, who was one of the Buffalo six, basically pled guilty to providing material support, probably is going to do about seven to 10 years in jail. Is that justice?

JAMES HARRINGTON, ATTORNEY FOR SAHIM ALWAN: Well, it's a decision that I think when you listen to the clip that just played about Mr. Taher and his plea, the decision that was made by my client was a practical decision, one that -- he was -- he weighed all of the potential charges that could have been filed against him.

COOPER: Why did your client go to this al Qaeda training camp and meet with Osama bin Laden?

HARRINGTON: Well, each of these young men were, I think, basically duped by some people who came to Lackawana. One man who allegedly was killed in the bombing in Yemen several months ago by the CIA drone plane was a recruiter, and he came and he played upon the young men's idealism and their...

COOPER: Are you saying they didn't really know what they were getting into?

HARRINGTON: Well, they certainly didn't know the extent of it. My client went, and once he got there, he realized immediately that he should leave, and he left after 10 days.

COOPER: All right, Solomon Wisenberg, I want to bring you in now. You're a former federal prosecutor. Now, the U.S. attorney in this, Michael Baden, has described this cases a, quote, "model of pursuing and prosecuting terrorism suspects and in preventing terrorist acts here and abroad." Do you agree with that?

SOLOMON WISENBERG, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: I think so, particularly in the case of so-called sleeper cells. Now, the government has admitted here that they really don't have much evidence that this was a sleeper cell. But there's a real problem with groups of people who could potentially take action against the United States, but who at a particular time haven't done anything yet.

COOPER: Well, that's my question, what I don't get is how is this a model case if these guys basically pled out, they're going to do, like, six or seven years, and they were at an al Qaeda training facility meeting with Osama bin Laden?

WISENBERG: Well, it's a model case because they're getting seven years for what is pretty minimal activity. That is to say, it looks like from the evidence that's been made public that they went over, they attended this training camp, went home and didn't do much of anything else, and they're going to do seven to 10 years, the fellows who've pled guilty. I'd call that a pretty good deterrent, depending on how well the government decides to publicize it.

COOPER: James, was your client part of a sleeper cell?

HARRINGTON: Absolutely not. And it's a mischaracterization to say that there was not much evidence that they were a sleeper cell. There was no evidence they were a sleeper cell. The U.S. attorney and the prosecutor in this case have both acknowledged that. They have no basis for calling them a sleeper cell. And yet the president and FBI Director Mueller just last week came to Buffalo and called them a sleeper cell. So you have the prosecutor on one hand saying we have no evidence of that; the local FBI agent saying we have no evidence of that, and yet the top political officials in the country saying that they were a sleeper cell.

COOPER: Well, what's the difference between your client and James Walker Lindh, who is doing a lot more time than your client's ever going to do?

HARRINGTON: James Walker Lindh was in Afghanistan and carrying a rifle and made a conscious decision that he was going to fight with the Taliban. And his circumstances certainly were much different than what my client's were.

COOPER: Solomon, do you think the United States is safer because these guys have been prosecuted and made the deal and are going to see some time?

WISENBERG: I think you can make an argument based on the deterrent effect I was talking about that the United States may be safer in the future, because what the government is trying to do here is to send a message that if you go and engage in this type of activity, that you're not going to escape prosecution. In a way, these fellows are very unfortunate. They were over there before 9/11, and then 9/11 happened and they're getting the full force of the law against them. But there isn't any question, I don't think, that the particular statute in question would have been upheld in this case.

COOPER: We've got some breaking news that I have to break away for. But I appreciate you joining us, James Harrington, Solomon Wisenberg, I appreciate you talking about case. Thank you.

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