Tape of Bin Laden Discussing Attacks to be Released. White House May Add English Subtitles to Avoid Charges of Doctoring Arabic in Garbled Sections
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2001; Page A20
The White House plans to release a tape of Osama bin Laden discussing the World Trade Center attack later this week and is studying whether subtitles should be added to translate the Arabic to avoid charges that the soundtrack was doctored, senior administration officials said.
The 40-minute videotape, in which bin Laden discussed his advance knowledge and responsibility for the attacks, was made by an amateur hoping to document an al Qaeda dinner last month honoring an older mullah, officials said. The tape's sound "is spotty and garbled and one part is taped over," according to one official who has seen segments of the tape and been shown the transcript.
On the tape, bin Laden praises God that both towers collapsed when he had only expected more limited destruction, according to officials who have seen the tape or read a transcript.
As the group sits on the floor eating from bowls and being served from silver trays, bin Ladin jokes that his own press aide, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, had no advance knowledge of the attacks and rushed to tell him when news reports first came in.
Bin Laden also tells the group he knew Mohamed Atta was in charge of the hijacking group and that some of the "brothers" who conducted the operation did not know the nature of the work they were tasked to do, according to the official. Bin Laden says on the dinner tape, "They were only told at the time they boarded the planes," the official said.
President Bush said the portions of the tape he saw reinforced his will to pursue bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. "For those who see this tape, they'll realize that not only is he guilty of incredible murder, he has no conscience and no soul, that he represents the worst of civilization."
Intelligence officials, who recently obtained the tape in a private home in Jalalabad, have checked it with experts inside and outside the U.S. government. Last week the officials told the White House they considered it authentic.
Since that time there has been an internal debate about when and how to release it. Some have argued it could be used to counter overseas critics in the Muslim world who want evidence made public of bin Laden's role in the Sept. 11 attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,300 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Others worry that the tape's release could jeopardize the chance of acquiring additional evidence of bin Laden's guilt.
Part of the concern centers on the fact that the tape's Arabic soundtrack is unintelligible at times. Accompanying it with a separate English language transcript would raise "questions as to its authenticity," one official said. Arab language experts, including bin Laden supporters in the Middle East, would question "where in the videotape the U.S. says bin Laden said particular statements in the transcript," the official said.
Subtitles added to the videotape, one official said yesterday, would show the English translation of the Arabic that is spoken directly by bin Laden.
A White House official said the administration is evaluating either subtitles or a voice-over translation that could be placed on the videotape. Using a voice-over, however, would cover over the Arabic being spoken, an official said.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby (Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate intelligence committee, watched the tape yesterday with an English transcript and a translator. He said it showed bin Laden's "culpability in planning and foreknowledge of events so clearly that I don't know how a reasonable person could defend him. The gloating and bragging about what they did on September 11 was disgusting."