Ex-FBI official takes the stand

Amid dozens of terrorist threats, case of Moussaoui was not priority, he says

March 22, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A former senior FBI counterterrorism official testified yesterday that the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001 never rose to a heightened alert because federal law enforcement was besieged by threats to America that summer and it was unclear what Moussaoui was doing in the United States.

Michael Rolince was brought into Moussaoui's sentencing trial by prosecutors trying to deflect the damage done by a Minnesota FBI agent who told the jury Monday that FBI headquarters in Washington repeatedly snubbed his efforts to obtain search warrants and learn more about the al-Qaida-linked terrorist who was training on jumbo jet simulators.

Rolince said there were up to 70 terrorist threats under investigation by the FBI about potential attacks in America that August, when Moussaoui was arrested in Minneapolis. He said at least 100 buildings and structures in New York and Washington were viewed as "logical targets" for terrorists.

"There was concern throughout the law enforcement community, and we certainly anticipated an attack," Rolince said.

He characterized Moussaoui's arrest as one of those investigations, but suggested that it never produced enough details for the FBI to request search warrants to open his belongings. It would have been easier to have him deported, Rolince said.

In hindsight, Rolince admitted, had Moussaoui's possessions been searched, the FBI might have turned up enough leads to identify some of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers and perhaps marshal airport security officials to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

But with so much going on that summer, Rolince said, the Moussaoui matter was not deemed a priority. He said he only had two brief conversations about the Moussaoui case, and he was never given a copy of a lengthy memo from the FBI field office in Minneapolis outlining the arrest and highlighting the need for search warrants.

"The case was nowhere near fully developed," Rolince said.

He downplayed testimony Monday from FBI Special Agent Harry Samit, who arrested Moussaoui in Minnesota and testified that FBI headquarters repeatedly blocked his attempts at getting search warrants for Moussaoui's home, car, duffel bag and laptop computer.

Rolince said there was not enough evidence in the three weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks to believe Moussaoui was part of any large suicide hijacking mission.

"Agent Samit's hunches and suspicions were one thing," Rolince said. "What we knew was something else."

Testimony about infighting within the FBI is crucial to both sides in the case.

The government is trying to show that if Moussaoui had cooperated, the bureau could have prevented the attacks. The defense hopes to persuade the jury that the FBI was in such bureaucratic disarray that it was its own fault that Moussaoui was never fully investigated.

The prosecution wants to connect Moussaoui with the loss of lives on Sept. 11 and have him sentenced to death. The defense wants a term of life in prison.

The trial began March 6. It nearly collapsed last week over allegations that government attorney Carla J. Martin improperly tampered with some witnesses. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema has yet to announce when Martin will be called into the courtroom to explain herself.

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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