updated 8/12/2004 2:59:51 PM ET 2004-08-12T18:59:51

The Bush administration’s already troubled case against a suspected terrorist cell in Detroit is being dealt another blow with revelations that a witness came forward after the trial to undercut a key piece of video evidence presented to jurors.

Lawyers and Justice Department officials said Wednesday night that a Tunisian man shown in a videotape of landmarks in New York, Las Vegas and California has told investigators the tape was amateur footage from a university student trip, not surveillance as prosecutors portrayed at the trial of four suspected terrorists.

The witness, who was arrested on immigration issues, was interviewed in January, months after the trial in Detroit ended, and was turned over this summer to defense lawyers. It could deal a significant blow to the administration’s first major terrorism prosecution since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The Justice Department is nearing completion of a monthslong review of prosecutors’ conduct during the case, and a judge will rule on a defense request to reverse the convictions of three men.

“During the course of this review, information has come to the government’s attention that we were obligated to turn over the defense, and we did so,” Justice spokesman Mark Corallo said Wednesday night. “The review is ongoing and at the end of the day, the government will do the right thing based on the facts and the evidence.”

Though both sides have known about the witness interview for some time, they were precluded from disclosing it because of a judge’s gag order. Both sides confirmed it Wednesday after the judge lifted the gag order because one of the original prosecutors in the case, Richard Convertino, granted an interview to The Associated Press this week.

‘Amateurish video’
James Thomas, a lawyer for one of the Detroit defendants, said the new witness testimony undercuts one of the key pieces of evidence used against his client. “It was an amateurish video taken by school kids,” Thomas said.

Lawyers familiar with the interview say the student was arrested in Los Angeles on possible marriage fraud related to his immigration status, and also had tried to get into a flight school. But officials have found no connection to terrorism.

The student told investigators he came with a group of Tunisian university students and went to places like Disneyland and Universal Studios and Las Vegas that were shown on the Detroit tape. He identified himself as one of the people shown on the tape, but did not attend all of the locations and did not know all the students.

He said he believed another member of the student group bought video cameras to make the tapes, and may have sold the cameras later back in Tunisia for money.

Problems with prosecution
Justice officials said their review has turned up several problems with the original prosecution.

“Since the discovery of the tape in Detroit in 2001 and up until recently, the Justice Department’s experts believed the footage was terrorist surveillance, but the information that has come to light calls into question those conclusions,” a Justice official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because the internal investigation is still under way.

William Sullivan, a lawyer for Convertino, said his client had shown the tape to numerous Justice experts who told him it was consistent with other terror surveillance. “He was never presented with any evidence that contradicted those experts’ assessments,” Sullivan said.

Convertino is now under investigation in the case.

In a jury verdict last summer hailed by the administration as the breakup of a terrorist cell, Karim Koubriti, 25, and Abdel-Ilah Elmardoudi, 38, were convicted on terrorism and fraud charges, and Ahmed Hannan, 36, was convicted of fraud. A fourth defendant, Farouk Ali-Haimoud, 24, was acquitted.

Convictions long in doubt
The convictions have been in doubt for months after Justice officials divulged some documents that might have been helpful to defense lawyers weren’t turned over during the trial, and they removed the original prosecutors and put them under investigation.

An FBI agent and other experts put on by the prosecution at the trial said the tape appeared to be casing footage consistent with the way radical Muslim groups have taught operatives to conduct surveillance.

But the defense has argued the tape belonged to someone else and showed innocent tourism footage.

Justice officials said while the belated witness testimony calls into question the Detroit tape, a second tape found by Spanish authorities in an al-Qaida hideout in Madrid in 2002 that shows many of the same landmarks is still regarded by U.S. officials as terror surveillance.

Both tapes, obtained by the AP and aired nationally this week, show footage of casino hotels in Las Vegas, Disneyland in California and several landmarks in New York City, including the World Trade Center before it was attacked.

‘Narrow-shouldered bureaucrats’
The AP reported earlier this week that Justice Department documents from the time of the Detroit trial show that repeated friction between Washington and Detroit kept the government from showing the Spanish videotape and other evidence to the jury.

In an interview with the AP, Convertino alleged that “narrow-shouldered bureaucrats” in Washington kept him from putting on a stronger case. Convertino also claimed that Las Vegas authorities decided for economic reasons not to warn the public in 2002 that Detroit and Spanish terror cells had footage of the casinos that experts regarded as surveillance.

Las Vegas authorities acknowledged they were shown both tapes back in 2002, but said their decision not to warn the public had nothing to do with economics.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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