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Sunday, May 8, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Did handlers botch Ressam's cooperation?

Seattle Times staff reporters

In the spring before the 9/11 attacks, Ahmed Ressam, the would-be Millennium bomber of Los Angeles International Airport, began to talk about his life.

The Algerian offered an inside look at a journey that took him from Afghanistan terrorism camps to a Port Angeles ferry crossing, where he was caught trying to enter the United States in a sedan loaded with bomb-making materials.

Ressam poured out his story to Fred Humphries, a Seattle FBI agent who had helped piece together the government's case against him. In these sessions, three times a week for up to five hours at a time, Ressam painted a vivid picture of his life with a Montreal-based cell, terrorism "trade craft" learned in the camps, and the full or partial identities of more than 120 individuals he met along the way.

It was an important success for the U.S. Department of Justice, which was trying to penetrate the al-Qaida network.

But by the time hijacked jetliners crashed into the Twin Towers in New York, Ressam's cooperation began to fade. And in the months that followed, when good intelligence was at a premium, Ressam began to clam up and eventually stopped talking.

The sentencing finally unfolded April 27 in Seattle, with Ressam still not cooperating as he showed up in U.S. District Court. Prosecutors said that two significant terrorism cases were at risk of collapsing, which would jeopardize national security. The prospects of such a setback prompted the judge to grant a three-month delay in Ressam's sentencing in hopes he might again warm up to the government and start talking to gain a lighter prison term.

How did the Justice Department lose such an important witness?

Perhaps the sheer weight of confinement might have turned Ressam against his captors. But court documents and sources familiar with his treatment indicate that government actions and missteps contributed to Ressam's decision to stop talking:

• Early on, Ressam felt betrayed by Justice Department officials, who changed their stance on how long of a sentence they would recommend.

• In the weeks following 9/11, Ressam was harassed by inmates and guards who sought to humiliate him.

• Ressam was shaken by a change in his government handlers in September 2001, and he came to detest the interrogations.

A quiet defendant

Ressam sat passively through his trial in Los Angeles in the spring of 2001, as Humphries and others testified about his attempt to construct a bomb and bring its components into the United States. Later, Ressam would admit the plan was to detonate a bomb near a luggage carousel at Los Angeles International Airport.

It would have been a major terrorism strike for the then-32-year-old Ressam, who had left his native Algeria after failing to get into a university and land a police job. He made his way to Montreal, where he survived as a pickpocket and petty thief before being recruited by an Algerian Islamic militant and undergoing extensive training in guerrilla warfare and bomb-making.

After a three-week trial, the jury convicted him of conspiracy to commit an act of terrorism, smuggling explosives into the country, and several other counts.

On the plane back to the SeaTac Federal Detention Center, he rocked back and forth. He chanted. He wept. Back in his cell, he was put on a suicide watch.

In the days that followed, Ressam pulled himself back from the brink, and startled defense attorneys and the FBI with a sudden willingness to inform on the members of his Montreal-based terrorist cell, composed of Algerians trained by and affiliated with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network.

Just why Ressam became an informant remains in dispute.

Prosecutors now say he was probably acting like any other convicted crook, trying to shorten a possible life sentence. A psychiatrist who later interviewed Ressam, Dr. Stuart Grassian, wrote that Ressam was "desperate to find some moral compass, some means of reestablishing a sense of personal worth and value."

Whatever the reason, Ressam began to talk on May 10, 2001. And, according to all concerned, he was eager and enthusiastic to tell his story.

His initial questioning took place in a detention-center meeting room. Prosecutors were usually accompanied by at least one of Ressam's attorneys and Humphries, who usually took the lead in the questioning.

A former Army intelligence officer then in his fifth year with the FBI, the slender, athletic Humphries had traveled more than 300,000 miles during his investigation of Ressam. The verdict had left Humphries emotionally torn, feeling pride in his own investigative work and sadness for a young man who had thrown his life away.

According to Grassian, Ressam warmed to Humphries.

"All I did was separate the man from the crime," Humphries said in an interview in late 2001. "I treated him decently, with the respect that anyone deserves. That's all."

For Ressam, it was enough.

Sentence negotiations

As Ressam emerged as a valuable informant, his attorneys began to negotiate with Seattle prosecutors for a sentence that would reflect that cooperation. In initial discussions, the U.S. Attorney's Office here suggested 20 to 25 years, while Ressam's attorneys advocated for 10 to 15 years, according to defense attorney Thomas Hillier. Indeed, before trial, Ressam had rejected an offer of 25 years if he would plead guilty without any cooperation.

But five weeks into the questioning, the Justice Department said it would recommend no fewer than 27 years, and only if Ressam cooperated and promised not to challenge the sentence.

Without that cooperation, the government would recommend a much longer sentence of at least 65 years, and maybe twice that. Ressam signed it, but he felt like he had been double-crossed.

"They abused me, and their promises were false — lies," Ressam told Grassian. "First, it was 15 years, and then things changed — 27 years. They changed their mind. At first, they say that the information I give them is good. Then they turn around and say it's no good. They don't respect anything."

Ressam was angry, but he was still talking.

Days after prosecutors presented Ressam with the offer, he testified against Mokhtar Haouari, an Algerian who had helped Ressam in the Los Angeles bomb plot. Prosecutors say Ressam's testimony was critical to Haouari's conviction, which yielded a 24-year prison sentence.

New team in charge

Seattle prosecutors had the lead role in Ressam's conviction.

But in September 2001, just before 9/11, they ceded Ressam's handling to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan, N.Y., the lead Justice Department office for terrorism prosecutions. That office sorely needed Ressam's testimony to bolster two important terrorism cases, both of which sprang from information he had provided.

One case involved Samir Ait Mohamed, who allegedly helped Ressam conspire to bomb the Los Angeles airport. The other case targeted Abu Doha, a high-level al-Qaida operative in Great Britain who Ressam says served as a recruiting gatekeeper.

These cases were being built in New York by Assistant U.S. Attorney Robin Baker, who became a Ressam handler. A graduate of Cornell Law School, Baker had proven herself a skilled prosecutor who could launch a withering cross-examination of a hostile witness. But her job with Ressam would involve the more delicate task of grooming an unstable young Algerian to be a star witness for future trials.

In the weeks before 9/11, agents and attorneys in Seattle and New York worked together closely. Humphries and Baker even traveled to Algeria to follow up on Ressam's leads. They were in a hotel in Algiers when a lounge TV screen broadcast pictures of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

The New York office, immediately overwhelmed with 9/11, asked Humphries to interrogate Ressam.

Ressam, he discovered, knew nothing about plans for the attack, but he did know someone who was then the subject of intense interest: Zacarias Moussaoui, a French national of Moroccan descent whose bizarre behavior at a Minnesota flight school had prompted a round of FBI questioning on Aug. 15 — and who agents suspected might have something to do with the 9/11 attacks.

Ressam said he had met Moussaoui in an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan.

"Torment" after 9/11

Ressam's SeaTac detention cell was about half the size of a parking space. He could read magazines and books, and on rare occasions phone home to his family in Algeria. He was let out one hour a day. He was often seen wrapped in a blanket, peering out a small window.

This solitary confinement was intended to ensure his protection.

But as waves of anger over the terrorist attacks swept through the detention center, Ressam was subject to what one former inmate termed "constant torment" from guards and other inmates. The former inmate's claims were verified by a federal law-enforcement source familiar with the incidents. Both asked that their names not be used.

Mostly, it was a barrage of small acts. The inmate source said he saw a guard deliberately drop Ressam's food on the floor, scoop it up with gloved hands and shove it in through a slot in the cell door. At least once, Ressam was kept awake by guards and inmates singing "God Bless America" throughout the night, the law-enforcement source said. Other times, prisoners in nearby cells screamed epithets at Ressam. "Osama, why have you forsaken me?" they taunted.

Once, as Ressam looked through the slot in his door, someone slammed the slot's metal flap down on his face. Ressam howled in pain and was taken away, blood dripping from his face.

"I thought his treatment was cruel, especially given his cooperation with the feds," said the inmate source, who thought it helped poison Ressam's attitude.

After that, Humphries and a federal prosecutor threatened to prosecute whoever had assaulted Ressam, saying the incident endangered his cooperation, the federal source said. The FBI installed cameras to monitor Ressam's cell.

In the months that followed, Humphries occasionally ferried questions to Ressam from Baker, but her team was in charge. Baker and Ressam's relationship was rocky, and Ressam later would say he felt confused, panicky and humiliated by the hours of questioning.

In February 2003, while being questioned by German prosecutors in connection with a terrorism case, Ressam was vague and repeatedly interrupted the proceedings to pray.

By April of that year, his cooperation had largely ceased.

In a meeting with FBI agents preparing for Samir Ait Mohamed's extradition, Ressam's attorneys stated that he did not recall any of the information that he had previously provided, according to Baker.

Defense attorneys proposed that Grassian be brought in to interview Ressam; Justice Department officials embraced the idea.

After the interviews, Grassian said Ressam suffered from the effects of his long solitary confinement. FBI behaviorists agreed with his conclusion.

Back in his cell, Ressam said he grew increasingly disoriented. "I get headaches. I feel tight. Like the walls are coming in. ... It's torture to go through that every day," he told Grassian.

Grassian also said that Ressam felt hounded and exhausted by sometimes-hostile questioning about things he could no longer remember.

"Every time I moved away from them, I felt stronger," Ressam told the doctor. "No hope, all my life in solitary, but at least I could stop this heartache. The only way to have peace is to give up hope. There was no longer the pressure. I was free with my soul, the freedom of human dignity is the most important thing."

Grassian suggested that he be moved out of solitary confinement, so Ressam was placed in a secret witness-protection program within the Bureau of Prisons.

But a year later, in November 2004, Ressam still wasn't talking. The time had come, both sides agreed, for the long-delayed sentencing of Ahmed Ressam.

Behind sentencing delay

At Ressam's sentencing hearing last month, Fred Humphries was the only witness.

In 2001, his career had taken off as he was transferred to Washington, D.C., as a supervisory agent.

Over the years, his travels included Guantánamo Bay, where he was dismayed by some of the interrogation tactics used against enemy combatants, which he thought often failed to yield much good intelligence.

Humphries testified at the request of U.S. District Judge John Coughenour. As the agent took the stand, the judge said he was impressed by Humphries' "integrity" and "candor." That's why, in February 2003, he had taken the unusual step of asking Humphries to monitor Ressam's cooperation.

Humphries had serious concerns about the Justice Department's handling of Ressam, which he felt contributed to the inmate's eventual disaffection.

The Justice Department knew how Humphries felt, and before the sentencing, an FBI supervisor in Washington, D.C., sent an memorandum to New York prosecutors seeking information to rebut any adverse testimony Humphries might offer up, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Humphries was angered by the memo, and he came to the hearing prepared to explain his concerns about it and about Ressam's treatment, the source said.

But no one asked.

Instead, prosecutors and a defense attorney focused their questions on the value of Ressam's intelligence, which Humphries said was valuable but was overstated by defense attorneys.

Ressam stiffened and glowered as Baker told the court he had broken his pledge to cooperate. And she joined Seattle prosecutors in pressing for a 35-year sentence, eight years more than the minimum in the agreement with Ressam.

Coughenour thought that Ressam might be coaxed back to recounting crucial details of his terrorist years.

"It strikes me that a lot of the details that he's not remembering now are things that one would not forget," he said before adjourning the hearing until July.

Nobody yet knows if — by then — the Algerian militant will once again start talking.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com; Mike Carter: mcarter@seattletimes.com; Maureen O'Hagan: mohagan@seattletimes.com

Researcher David Turim contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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