WASHINGTON -- A terror suspect held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, was a commander for Osama bin Laden during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and helped the al-Qaida leader escape his mountain hide-out at Tora Bora in 2001, according to a U.S. government document.
The document, provided to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information request, says the unidentified detainee "assisted in the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora." It is the first definitive statement from the Pentagon that bin Laden was at Tora Bora and evaded U.S. pursuers.
The detainee is not identified by name or nationality. He is described as being "associated with" al-Qaida and having called for a jihad against the United States.
In an indication that he might be a higher-level operative, the document says he "had bodyguards" and collaborated with regional al-Qaida leadership. "The detainee was one of Osama bin Laden's commanders during the Soviet jihad," it says, referring to the war against Soviet occupiers.
The events at Tora Bora were a point of contention during last year's presidential race, and Bush as well as Vice President Dick Cheney asserted that commanders did not know whether bin Laden was there when U.S. and allied Afghan forces attacked the area in December 2001.
Cheney said Oct. 26 that Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, had "stated repeatedly it was not at all certain that bin Laden was in Tora Bora. He might have been there or in Pakistan or even Kashmir," the Indian-controlled Himalayan region.
Franks, now retired, wrote in an opinion column in The New York Times Oct. 19, "We don't know to this day whether Mr. bin Laden was at Tora Bora in December 2001."
He added that intelligence assessments of his location varied, but bin Laden was "never within our grasp."
On several occasions in the days following publication of that column, Bush cited it on the campaign trail as evidence that bin Laden could have been in any of several countries in December 2001. "That's what Tommy Franks, who knew what he's talking about, said," Bush said on Oct. 27.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, lambasted Bush during the campaign for having missed a chance to capture or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora, a mountainous area along the Pakistan border that became al-Qaida's last stand in Afghanistan. U.S. warplanes bombarded the area in December 2001, and Franks had Afghan soldiers lead the ground assault, backed by several thousand U.S. ground troops, including Special Forces, in a cave-to-cave search.
The newly revealed statement is contained in a document the Pentagon calls a "summary of evidence" against one of 558 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It was provided to the AP this week.
The evidence was summarized last December 14 for a Guantanamo Bay hearing to determine whether the prisoner was correctly held as an "enemy combatant."
The assertion about his efforts and bin Laden's escape is made as a statement of fact; it does not indicate how the information was obtained.
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Daryl Borgquist, a spokesman for the Combatant Status Review Board for which the document was prepared, said Tuesday he could not elaborate on the Tora Bora statement, or its sources, because the statement was derived from classified information.
Bin Laden, whose al-Qaida terrorist organization was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, had operated from Afghanistan until the U.S. invasion in October 2001.
He remains at large. For many months, officials have said they believe bin Laden probably is hiding in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, although last week Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to endorse that view, saying bin Laden's whereabouts were unknown.
In mid-December 2001, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, told reporters there had been "indicators" of bin Laden's presence at Tora Bora in early December.
"And now indicators are not there," Stufflebeem said. "So maybe he still is there, maybe he was killed, or maybe he's left."
Among documents stating the U.S. government's evidence against other detainees at Guantanamo Bay is a September 2004 assertion that an unidentified detainee, described as a member of al-Qaida, had traveled from the United States to Afghanistan in November 2001 -- two months after the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The document does not elaborate on the detainee's U.S. connection, but says he arrived in Afghanistan via Bahrain and Iran. He was "present at Tora Bora," crossed the Afghan border into Pakistan in December 2001, and surrendered to Pakistani authorities, the document says.
The detainee also was arrested by Saudi authorities for questioning in the 1996 terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 members of the U.S. Air Force, the document says.