In Moussaoui trial, FBI agent says he lacked central facts

Defense challenges his competence, focuses on government missteps

March 08, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The man the government presented as its FBI expert on al-Qaida testified in federal court yesterday that no FBI agents alerted him before Sept. 11, 2001, that Zacarias Moussaoui had been arrested in Minnesota trying to learn how to fly jumbo jets weeks before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.

That was one of several key elements concerning Sept. 11 and al-Qaida that FBI Supervisory Agent Michael Anticev said he was not informed about by other top law enforcement officials.

Anticev testified that he has heard only "from the media" that Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been captured after the attacks, even though top government sources have trumpeted his arrest and confinement in a secret location abroad.

Asked a wide range of questions, many of them dealing with major al-Qaida enterprises such as the attack on the USS Cole and a plot to blow up planes over the Pacific Ocean, Anticev often answered by saying, "I don't know," "I've heard that" and "I guess so."

He was the government's first witness in the federal sentencing trial of Moussaoui, a French citizen who could get the death sentence as a Sept. 11 collaborator.

Anticev was presented to the court as one of the bureau's top experts on al-Qaida, a specialty he said he has honed since 1996, and as the supervisor of other agents investigating al-Qaida.

His competence was challenged by defense lawyers, who argue that government mistakes prevented the discovery of the Sept. 11 plot.

He first took the stand Monday afternoon and was questioned gingerly by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Raskin. He gave the jury a broad profile of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network, including documents and videotapes played in the courtroom, many of which have been shown on television.

Yesterday morning, when the witness was handed over to questioning by defense attorney Edward MacMahon, Anticev testified that he did not know many central facts about al-Qaida and its operatives.

McMahon asked Anticev about the Finsbury Park Mosque in England, a meeting place for Moussaoui and other radical Muslims, and a recruitment center for al-Qaida.

"I have very limited knowledge on that," he said.

MacMahon asked Anticev about Abu Hamza al Masri, the virulent anti-American cleric at the mosque, who long has been sought in this country on terrorism-related charges.

"I really don't know too much about him," Anticev said. "I know he's a very radical fundamentalist imam who was inspiring jihad."

On the question of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's being apprehended as the Sept. 11 mastermind, an event that many Bush administration sources have described, Anticev responded, "Well, I know from the media that he is in some kind of custody."

Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty last year to six charges, three of which make him eligible for the death penalty. Prosecutors are contending that after his arrest in August 2001, he refused to tell the FBI about the continuing Sept. 11 plot. Had he done so, they maintain, the government could have prevented the attacks.

The defense is countering that the government had many clues about the unfolding conspiracy. MacMahon told the jury that government missteps are as much to blame for the nearly 3,000 killed as is any refusal by Moussaoui to cooperate, and he sought to challenge the FBI's competence by discrediting Anticev.

The government's second witness, FBI Agent Jim Fitzgerald, one of two agents on the Moussaoui case, described the work of the investigation set up after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fitzgerald spoke without notes as he led the jury through a chronicle of the 19 hijackers' travels to the United States and described them as working in pairs until their final assignments.

He also testified that they often acted in this country just as Moussaoui did. Many set up post office boxes and e-mail accounts and took fitness training, he said, bought small knives and took flight lessons. They generally used their own names, he said.

Fitzgerald also identified passports and other items belonging to the hijackers that were found at the crash sites, and he held up a long red bandanna that he said one of the terrorists wore on the flight that crashed in a farm field in western Pennsylvania.

Questioned by MacMahon, Fitzgerald said Moussaoui emulated the other hijackers but that there is no evidence he met or spoke with any of the 19.

"Sir, I cannot put him with them," Fitzgerald told the defense lawyer.

"But you tried as hard as you could, didn't you?" MacMahon asked.

"Yes, sir, we did."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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