WASHINGTON -- A commander for Osama bin Laden during Afghanistan's war with the Soviet Union who helped the Al Qaeda leader escape American forces at Tora Bora is being held by US authorities, a government document says.
The document represents the first definitive statement from the Pentagon that bin Laden, the mastermind of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was at Tora Bora and evaded his pursuers.
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney asserted during the presidential election that commanders did not know whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora when US and allied Afghan forces attacked in December 2001. They dismissed assertions by Senator John F. Kerry that the military had missed a chance to capture or kill bin Laden while Al Qaeda made a last stand in the mountainous area along the Pakistan border.
The document, provided to the Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, says the detainee held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ''assisted in the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora." While not identified by name or nationality, he is described as being ''associated with" Al Qaeda and having called for a holy war against the United States.
In an indication that he might be a higher-level operative, the document says the detainee ''had bodyguards" and collaborated with regional Al Qaeda leadership. ''The detainee was one of Osama bin Laden's commanders during the Soviet jihad," it says, referring to the holy war against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s.
The document is what the Pentagon calls a ''summary of evidence" and was presented against one of 558 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay on Dec. 14 for a hearing to determine whether the prisoner was correctly held as an ''enemy combatant."
In mid-December 2001, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Rear Admiral 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."
While campaigning for president last fall, Kerry said Bush had erred in relying on Afghan warlords to hunt down bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora, contending on Oct. 22 that the president had ''outsourced" the job.