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At Padilla terror trial, a witness's surprise effect

A witness for the US government has painted a less-than-menacing picture of a terrorist training camp.

(Page 2 of 2)

Cooke's limitations set the stage for a dramatic turnabout.

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Testimony has limitations

Instead of Goba discussing the radical, violent, terrorist goals of many of his fellow recruits and their Al Qaeda hosts at Al Farooq, his testimony has been limited to his own experiences and beliefs. He told the jury under questioning by defense lawyers that he never intended to join Al Qaeda, engage in terrorism, or harm anyone.

He attended the training camp because he'd been told by an Islamic preacher that it was a religious duty to prepare for jihad to assist Muslims struggling against oppression in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya.

"Are you now, or have you ever been a terrorist?" Padilla defense lawyer Michael Caruso asked.

"No," Goba answered.

"You felt that it was necessary to do this training so that if called upon, you could help your [Muslim] brothers and sisters facing atrocities all over the world?" Mr. Caruso asked.

"Yes," Goba said.

Defense lawyers asked Goba to explain his beliefs about jihad, or Islamic holy war. He agreed that jihad can represent an inner struggle within a Muslim and that when it takes the form of physical fighting, it is only acceptable in defense of Islam and Muslims.

"So murder is not jihad?" asked William Swor, a lawyer for a Padilla codefendant. "Unfairly injuring someone is not jihad?"

"Yes," Goba answered to both questions.

By the end of the cross-examination, prosecutors knew they were in trouble: When the jury was dismissed for the day, Mr. Frazier asked Cooke to allow him more leeway to explore what Goba was told about Al Qaeda's view of jihad.

"The impression is left that the only reason people go to this camp [in Afghanistan] is peaceful – the inner struggle," Frazier said.

Defense lawyers urged the judge to hold firm to her earlier ruling. "[Frazier's] goal is to get Al Qaeda's credo into this trial through this witness," said Jeanne Baker, a lawyer for another Padilla codefendant.

The episode is significant because it has enabled defense lawyers to introduce some of their core arguments to the jury using an important government witness. It has allowed defense lawyers to paint the case in finer shades of gray rather than the black-and-white approach adopted by the government.

It also highlights the severe constraints faced by federal prosecutors who have attempted to cobble together a criminal case against Padilla without jeopardizing sensitive intelligence sources and methods. There is no shortage of Al Qaeda officials in US custody at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, with direct knowledge of the purpose of the Al Farooq training camp. But even if they agreed to testify, to transport them into the United States would empower them with certain legal protections and would open a door to permit an investigation of the harsh interrogation tactics allegedly used against them overseas.

Even in its constrained form, Goba's testimony has been important for the government. Under direct questioning from Frazier, Goba said that prior to entering the training camp he filled out a Mujahideen Data Form identical to the form prosecutors say Padilla filled out.

But Padilla allegedly attended the same camp 10 month earlier. Prosecutors acknowledge that they have been unable to locate anyone who was at the training camp with Padilla. "If they exist, we don't know where they are," Frazier told the judge outside the jury's presence.