They could have been two friends reliving highlights from the World Cup soccer tournament, or a pair of old fraternity brothers recalling glories of past pranks.
Instead, the gleeful men - Osama bin Laden and a reverential sheik - were recounting the preparation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America and their deadly aftermath. The amateur video was shown on special reports by the three major networks and cable news channels via a feed from the Defense Department at 11 a.m. yesterday.
It was a video as remarkable for its tone as for its apparent implication of bin Laden in the hijacking scheme.
At times, viewers could see bin Laden's shoulders shaking with the force of his laughter as he described the scale of the slaughter in New York and elsewhere.
The video was coarsely made, often focusing on participants who were not speaking, and it was unnerving in its banality. Footage showed amicable companions seated on mattresses in a bare-walled room apparently without windows. The tape, obtained in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, recorded scenes from late November, according to Pentagon officials.
It did not show events in chronological sequence. But with the broadcast, Americans could hear and see bin Laden's private joy after the attacks, rather than his public posturing. An earlier videotaped speech from an Afghan cave that was first broadcast by Al- Jazeera showed him expressing strong support for the actions but taking no responsibility for them.
This time, the connection seemed closer.
"I was the most optimistic of them all," bin Laden said to his confederate. "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."
As NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw told viewers: "Really, the tone is what you want to listen to, rather than merely the content."
Fox News Channel's Tony Snow said the tape left "little doubt" of bin Laden's involvement.
ABC News generated a scoop through old-fashioned hustle. A network reporter obtained a copy of the bin Laden videotape minutes before the Pentagon began transmitting a satellite feed.
So, during the first minutes of the broadcast, ABC's reporters and producers thumbed through the transcript to find newsworthy or emotionally charged portions, then fast-forwarded its videotape so it could broadcast those sections ahead of the other networks. It returned to its regular broadcast after about 40 minutes.
"We just made sure the `smoking gun' was cued up and ready to roll," said Jeffrey Schneider, a vice president at ABC News, referring to seemingly incriminating remarks.
Along with the three primary cable news channels, NBC carried the full hour of videotape; CBS News pulled out a bit early.
Not all the footage showed bin Laden. In one part, equipment apparently from a downed U.S. helicopter was proudly displayed, with the unknown cameraman taking care to show the "property of U.S. government" labels. Youths shown seated by the helicopter sang in response to direction from a nearby instructor.
The video again showed bin Laden and his aides, visiting a man said by the Pentagon to be a disabled Islamic cleric from Saudi Arabia. Despite the video's uneven quality, bin Laden's expressions, demeanor and voice were far more discernible than White House aides had led news agencies to believe, television executives said.
"I would say it was undersold by the Bush administration," said MSNBC President Erik Sorenson.
According to Bill Wheatley, senior vice president for NBC News, two translators hired by the network monitored the broadcast and verified that the government's official translation of the Arabic conversation was accurate. On MSNBC, a sister channel to NBC, translators were able to offer parts of the conversation the government had labeled inaudible.
The government-generated broadcast of the video represents a seeming change from the stance the Bush administration had adopted two months ago. In mid-October, senior officials asked the networks not to broadcast videotape of bin Laden, saying that he could be conveying secret messages to followers and that such broadcasts served little purpose other than providing a forum for his propaganda. The White House also asked newspaper editors not to publish his remarks.
Yesterday's broadcast was different, network news officials said, because the government had given its blessing to the tape's release.
"We were told [by government officials] they didn't think there were any hidden messages in the tape," Wheatley said. "Our concern was always about the hidden messages. American viewers are quite sophisticated - they can figure out how to deal with propaganda."