Posted Wednesday, December 12, 2001

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 How fortunate that of all the millions of videotapes littering liberated Qandahar, the Americans should have chanced upon this one!





Thursday, December 13, 2001
(Key West, Florida, USA)

SUPPER with lawyer Sam D. who arrived during the afternoon. Unfortunately I had a bar of Toblerone as we walked to the Bagatelle, so the rich fish appetizer, and steak that followed did not mix well. Felt groggy walking back. Entertaining evening with Sam, who is doing very well financially in real estate.

Afterwards from 9:55 p.m. I watched the videotape released by the Pentagon, alleged to show Osama bin Laden in conversation with his cronies. Mohammed Atta's father is said to have dismissed it as a fake (without having seen it), saying he spoke to his son on the phone a few days after the event; which would be odd, but then the widow of General Sikorski's second pilot told me the same thing about her husband (he had "phoned her" two or three days after the fatal crash in July 1943, she told me, but she never saw him again).

The video lasted somewhat over an hour and had three segments -- a group of Arabs said to include Osama bin Laden himself in furtive, joyous discussion of religion, politics, and current events including the World Trade Center attacks (the Pentagon is not mentioned: but neither are the Jews, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or any of his other known obsessions); an endless thirty minute tour of the Afghanistan desert, with men and children visiting remnants of at least two helicopters -- because the camera "hosepipes" around, panning across the desert from one wreckage site to the other -- which we assumed were American; and a return visit to the Osama discussion, rather disconcertingly filmed seemingly at the same time as the first. From first to last there are no women visible, though their voices can be heard sometimes a few doors away.[*]

How fortunate that of all the millions of videotapes littering liberated Qandahar, the Americans should have chanced upon this one! But then millions of Americans play the lottery in the belief that they can win: they have no concept of the mathematics of Large Numbers.

Laden, audienceFor a while I gained the odd impression that the filming was going on from behind a two-way mirror, as -- in best Hollywood tradition -- nobody, at any time, looked at or seemed to notice the camera or operator. On closer scrutiny, the camera seemed to be held at waist height throughout; perhaps the operator was seated, but he can be heard whispering quite clearly in the foreground -- his whispers are not translated, and much of the audible dialogue on the screen is left untranslated, which is a great weakness.

There is a brief and interesting glimpse of war booty being unpacked and displayed, including American microwave components (presumably radar rather than domestic kitchen variety), and a bit of a flak jacket manufactured by a firm in Miami Lakes, Florida; the helicopter fuselage fragments appear to be peppered with shrapnel holes. The latter items tend to authenticate the video, as they seem to indicate equipment and even minor personnel losses about which the Pentagon has not so far been forthcoming.


Friday, December 14, 2001
(Key West, Florida, USA)

I HAVE slept on the tape, and these are my impressions, which are very raw and have not benefited from either knowledge of Arabic, video or technical expertise, patriotic prejudice or academic input from others. If somebody would pay me $200,000 I would make a perfect "expert witness."

I have to say, having watched the tape undisturbed and alone for the full hour, that it does contains material that would without a second's hesitation enable a judge like Charles Gray or Earl Warren to convict Osama bin Laden of a high degree of responsibility for the WTC atrocity. But non-conformist historians, and for that matter members of the general public, are still entitled to a degree of skepticism. Taking the role of avocatus diaboli, these are my own reservations, which may very well be dispelled over the next few days by the real experts in the relevant fields.

The tape itself is evidently made on an amateur camera, as it is low definition, but the tape medium used was of high standard (there are no tracking errors or liftouts -- horizontal interference bands -- except for the first few seconds).

There is an apparently unnecessary air of secrecy surrounding its origins, which may be calculated to enhance its plausibility.

I had watched Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at his press conference on C-Span the during previous hour and, questioned unexpectedly about the provenance of the tape, he seemed uneasy and reluctant to offer any detail. He said the tape had been found in private property (a house) in Qandahar, Afghanistan, but even when pressed he refused even to hint at how it came into US hands. An honest explanation of this would be that a US (or for that matter British) special forces unit had obtained it, in which case why not say so?

Bin LadenWe were first told, some days ago, by President George W Bush himself, that it was the smoking gun, containing clear proof that Osama had orchestrated the September 11 attacks. At that time it seemed there was no intention of releasing the tape. Under media pressure, which could have been anticipated, the government then agreed to release it, but delayed for several days, explaining that the audio quality was poor and the translations were indeterminate. In which case how had Bush reached the smoking-gun conclusion? As even commentator Greenfield on CNN said, "It seems hard to square that circle."

Next, there is the translation used last night. We have been told repeatedly over the last two days that four non-government experts were working on a translation of the Arabic, hence the delays. The intention was to satisfy the public that it was not biased -- Arabic being a language notoriously vague to translate, with concepts rather than one-for-one equivalencies often being the closest that can be attained. From internal evidence, the tape seems to have been recorded on or about November 9.

The tape finally released and broadcast last night had a label on it throughout, identifying it as the US Pentagon translation. So what happened to the rival version that had delayed its release?

The Pentagon transcript subtitles had over-useful interpolations in round brackets, making direct reference to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and civilian deaths, and in one instance identifying an Egyptian member of this Islamic mafia referred to in conversation only as Mohammed, as "Mohammed (Atta)" -- which might seem a bold step, given the likely number of other Egyptians called Mohammed.

Bin LadenAs for Osama bin Laden himself, I still find it hard to believe that this simpering, giggling mystic was able to mastermind this ruthless plan. Maybe that is why the Pentagon was loath to put it on show -- except that their own military leaders like Tommy Franks, Air Force General Myers and the ineffable Rear-Admiral Stufflebeem seem to be several plates short of a picnic in their own intellectual department, from what we can see at their press conferences (unlike Rumsfeld whose brain is as sharp as a Wilkinson sword). Watching the videotape I kept asking myself -- this being Florida -- what these guys had been smoking. Evidently in this case Islam is itself the opiate.

My verdict for history on the tape will hinge on the videotape's proper authentication, an explanation of the provenance, and the independent translation and display (without the bottom half being obscured by the subtitle panel) of the two key segments of the video: one in which we are told Osama bin Laden is describing his advance calculations of the casualties from the WTC attacks, illustrated by movements of his hands; and the other, in which he refers to the junior participants being kept in the dark about their imminent martyrdom. The latter is more incriminating than the former.


Osama bin Laden: (...Inaudible...) we calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower. We calculated that the floors that would be hit would be three or four floors. I was the most optimistic of them all. (...Inaudible...) due to my experience in this field, I was thinking that the fire from the gas in the plane would melt the iron structure of the building and collapse the area where the plane hit and all the floors above it only. This is all that we had hoped for.

Shaykh: Allah be praised.


Lord Cherwell and "Bomber" Harris made much the same kind of calculations in March 1942; I have seen them.

But much rests on the integrity of the translation and transcript. Is it pure chance that two opening phrases in this key passage are said to be "(inaudible)"? It didn't sound inaudible in the version I saw. Here in the United States I have heard scores of similar discussions after the event. Suppose Osama's opening remarks were inaudibilized, an audiotape technique that U.S. presidents have long mastered? Suppose the missing phrases were something like, "According to CNN thousands died in the upper floors. Well, that may be so. I'm a trained engineer and we've done the calculations and…"

Related items on this website

Previous Radical's Diary
transcript of videotape. [Please inform us when this link no longer works]

* A reader comments (Tuesday, December 18, 2001): " In Muslim cultures, when the man of the house entertains male guests, the women stay in another room. I might clarify this by saying "traditional Muslim cultures" -- the more modern people mingle freely. But in the case of a person such as OBL, this would certainly be the case. I have personally witnessed this many times. The women do the cooking, or make tea, or whatever, but NEVER enter the stay in the room with the men."

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