Crew Kept USS Cole Afloat While FBI Collected Bombing Evidence

Two FBI agents on Monday described laboring to recover dead sailors and suspected bombing parts in temperatures of 110 to 130 degree aboard the foundering USS Cole off Aden, Yemen, as sailors still stunned from an al-Qaida suicide attack struggled to keep the warship afloat.

The agents were identifying potential trial evidence in the death-penalty case against a Saudi man accused of orchestrating the Oct. 12, 2000 bombing that killed 17 U.S. sailors and wounded dozens of others.

In one painful moment, the prosecutor put up a photograph of USS Cole wreckage that, with careful study, showed a dead sailor in his blue coveralls.

No date has been set for the trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, 52, who displayed no visible reaction as he watched in court in a prison uniform and jacket. During recesses, the man accused of orchestrating the terror attack for Osama bin Laden stood at his defense table, unshackled as usual, casually talking with defense team members.

"Throughout the entire time the security of our team was uncertain," said former FBI agent Jane Rhodes-Wolfe, who got to the USS Cole four days after the attack. She described the precarious state of the devastated $1 billion, 8,300-ton ship and fears of a threat at the Aden Hotel where the FBI forensic team was staying, calling it one of the most challenging evidence collection tasks of her career.

"The victims were still present. The sailors were physically drained. They were emotionally drained," she testified while surviving Cole crew members watched from behind a blue curtain to shield them from other spectators.

Nashiri was arraigned on the terror charges on Nov. 9, 2011, and this was a first in-court look into the horrifying outcome of the blast that the U.S. Navy survivors describe to reporters. Pretrial hearings have been mostly devoted to defense motions attacking the integrity of the case, as well as a quest by Nashiri's lawyers for evidence about the four years he spent in the CIA's secret overseas prisons, the Black Sites.

He was rectally abused, waterboarded and subjected to other "enhanced interrogation techniques" that his lawyers describe as torture that disqualifies the U.S. military from seeking his execution.

But this week's testimony is devoted to U.S. agents collecting evidence soon after the attack -- two years before Nashiri's capture -- in what they described as a hostile environment in Yemen, a sometimes ally of the United States.

Off Aden Harbor, the FBI had collected fiberglass and other debris with suspected explosives residue they hoped would provide clues to who was responsible and what bomb they used. On shore, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was blaming a gas explosion, not a terror attack. And the agents became so worried about security that, after 10 days on the ground, Rhode-Wolfe and another agent scooped up the evidence and took it to the USS Tarawa to bring it back to Norfolk, Va., via stops in Oman and Germany.

Also Monday FBI agent Thomas O'Connor described searching the beach a distance from the wrecked ship and finding a USS Cole ballcap. It was blown ashore after two suicide bombers in what the U.S. Navy thought was a garbage skiff, pulled alongside the Cole and set off a blast that destroyed the sailors' dining room.

Once he was on board, he found surviving USS Cole sailors "were busy" with "pumps, different things" struggling to keep the ship afloat. The lead investigation agent, John P. O'Neill, who would be killed in the Sept. 11, 2001 World Trade Center bombing, assigned O'Connor to find the dead sailors. It was days after the attack and 12 of the dead were still missing in the twisted, wreckage of the ship's galley, where the thermometer "tapped out at 130."

He called it the most difficult environment he ever processed.

The agents would find the remains of dead sailors and identify them through dog-tags, names on their uniforms or by having the skipper, Navy Cmdr Kirk Lippold, look at them. The agents would put them in body bags, drape them with U.S. flags and the ship would hold brief ceremonies.

Case prosecutor Mark Miller asked if the evidence collection would stop for the ceremonies. No, O'Connor replied.

In another development Monday:

--Judge Vance Spath, an Air Force colonel, said he would allow another Saudi captive at Guantanamo, Ahmed al Darbi, to testify by pretrial deposition during a July 31 to Aug. 4 Nashiri case hearing.

Darbi, 42, has pleaded guilty to war crimes to serve out his sentence in his homeland in exchange for his testimony against Nashiri about al-Qaida's so-called Boats Operation. Prosecutors say the Trump administration will honor the deal and want to set his repatriation into motion with a sentencing hearing later in August.

Spath told prosecutors they would have to show that Darbi's testimony against Nashiri is voluntary for it to be admitted at the eventual USS Cole trial.

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