Prosecution complete in Moussaoui's trial

He could have helped thwart hijackers, witness says

March 24, 2006|By RICHARD A. SERRANO | RICHARD A. SERRANO,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Federal prosecutors completed their case yesterday in the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui with their final witness, a former FBI agent, testifying that if Moussaoui had cooperated after his arrest in August 2001, 11 of 19 hijackers could have been found fairly quickly and stopped before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The testimony set the stage for the French terrorist to take the witness stand in his defense next week.

"I will testify," Moussaoui shouted to his lawyers after the government presented its last witness. "Whether you want it or not, I will testify."

His four court-appointed lawyers have urged him not to take the stand, fearing that his volatile temper and oft-expressed hatred for Americans would encourage the jury to sentence him to death.

The government's final witness was Aaron Zebley, who was one of the FBI's two chief case agents on the Moussaoui investigation and is now an assistant U.S. attorney.

He identified phone calls, Western Union money transfers and other evidence linking Moussaoui to al-Qaida handlers in Germany and the United Arab Emirates. Those handlers coordinated the movements of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers in the United States.

Zebley said that if Moussaoui had told the FBI about the money transfers, agents could have identified 11 of the hijackers and stopped them before they reached the airports in Boston, Washington and Newark, N.J., on the morning of Sept. 11.

"We could have set about finding them, obviously," Zebley said. "We could have shared this information with our law enforcement partners on the federal, state and local levels. We could have shared this with our intelligence partners too, and the Secret Service."

Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to having a role in the Sept. 11 conspiracy. He said he was hand-picked by al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to go to the United States, take pilot lessons and fly a jet into the White House.

On Sept. 11, two planes struck the World Trade Center towers in New York and another hit the Pentagon. A fourth plane, which went down in a Pennsylvania farm field after passengers tried to overpower the hijackers, is thought to have been headed toward the White House or the Capitol.

Zebley also testified that if Moussaoui had allowed the FBI to inspect his belongings, agents would have found lists of flight schools, including the jet simulator school he was attending in Eagan, Minn., and other pilot training facilities in southern Florida, where some of the hijackers learned to fly.

"We could have got to those flight schools and looked for people like the defendant," Zebley said. "Somebody rushing through flight school and onto jet simulators. Someone with a Middle Eastern name. We'd be looking for people who look like the defendant."

Under cross-examination, Zebley conceded that Moussaoui knew nothing about some key elements of the Sept. 11 plot.

None of Moussaoui's possessions carried the names of any of the hijackers. All of the flight tickets purchased by the hijackers were bought after Moussaoui was arrested, indicating that he did not know the date for the attacks. And there is no proof that Moussaoui knew what the hijackers' targets were.

Zebley conceded that the FBI does not think Moussaoui was supposed to have been aboard one of the planes.

Zebley concluded a troubled prosecution case in which several other FBI witnesses conceded that the bureau had ignored repeated warnings about a looming terrorist attack. And the government's case was badly hurt when a federal lawyer improperly coached several prospective witnesses familiar with aviation security.

The lawyer, Carla Martin of the Transportation Security Administration, has been subpoenaed to appear Monday before U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema to explain her conduct. The judge barred the affected witnesses from testifying.

The defense began its case late yesterday by calling Eric Rigler, a former FBI special agent who runs a criminal justice consulting firm in Texas. Rigler led the jury through the FBI's many "missed opportunities" to detect the plot, as laid out in a report by the Justice Department's inspector general.

The defense is trying to show that even if Moussaoui had cooperated with the FBI, its agents made so many mistakes in the weeks before Sept. 11 that it would be unfair to blame the loss of life on the defendant, who was in jail when the attacks occurred.

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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