ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- The FBI agent who arrested Zacarias Moussaoui just weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks described with great regret yesterday how superiors in Washington repeatedly blocked his attempts to learn whether Moussaoui was part of a larger terrorist cell about to hijack planes in the United States.
Special Agent Harry Samit said his FBI superiors did not share other critical intelligence information, including a memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix about suspected terrorists taking flying lessons and a briefing for President Bush warning that planes might be hijacked.
Samit said his bosses told him after two hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center that it was "just a coincidence" with the case he was trying to make against Moussaoui.
Under intense cross-examination by defense lawyers in Moussaoui's sentencing trial, Samit said he now believes that his superiors were guilty of "criminal negligence and obstruction."
He accused them of "careerism" and said they thwarted his efforts in order to protect their positions within the FBI.
"They obstructed it," he said, calling their actions a "calculated" management decision "that cost us the opportunity to stop the attacks."
Samit's recollections and frustrations were the first ground-level account of how FBI agents in Minneapolis, where Moussaoui was arrested on a visa violation three weeks before the attacks, were appalled that supervisors in Washington would not support their attempts to obtain search warrants to find out why the 37-year-old Frenchman was taking flying lessons and what role he might have in a wider plan to attack America.
Samit's suspicions have been backed up by Coleen Rowley, then an FBI lawyer in Minneapolis, who has also complained that Washington was blocking the Minnesota field office's attempts to determine what Moussaoui was really doing.
The prosecution has not sought Rowley's testimony, but government lawyers felt it essential to call Samit as a witness, since he could describe his arrest of Moussaoui and his desperate efforts to get the defendant's cooperation. The prosecution contends that had Moussaoui cooperated with the FBI, agents could have learned of the hijacking plot and taken steps to stop it. Yet as court adjourned yesterday, much of Samit's testimony might have backfired on the government.
In April, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to being part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy. A jury now must decide whether he will spend the rest of his life in prison or be put to death.
The sentencing trial began two weeks ago, but was waylaid last week when it was learned that Carla J. Martin, a lawyer for the Transportation Security Administration, improperly coached key aviation security witnesses about to testify for the government. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema is allowing the prosecution to present a limited amount of aviation testimony and evidence.
Prosecutors are trying to gain a death sentence by proving that had Moussaoui cooperated with Samit upon his arrest in August 2001, the government would have used his assistance to identify some of the 19 hijackers and helped security officials keep them off the planes.
But defense lawyers contend that the government already had plenty of leads in the summer of 2001 that a major terrorist plot was afoot. They point to the FBI Phoenix memo and the fact that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet was apprised of Moussaoui's arrest - none of which Samit said he was told.
Samit said he also was kept in the dark about the Aug. 6, 2001, briefing given to Bush during his vacation in Crawford, Texas. That briefing, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," noted "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."
During questioning by defense lawyer Edward B. MacMahon Jr., Samit said FBI headquarters in Washington rejected a series of attempts he made to obtain a search warrant of Moussaoui's personal belongings.
Had the belongings been opened before Sept. 11, agents would have found small knives, jumbo jet pilot manuals, rosters of flight schools and other clues that could have helped them understand the Sept. 11 plot.
When Samit wanted to seek a criminal search warrant and later one by a special intelligence court, FBI officials refused because they did not believe he had enough evidence that Moussaoui was anything but a wealthy man who came to this country to follow his dream of becoming a pilot. Samit said Washington kept telling him there was "no urgency and no threat."
Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.