Moussaoui trial sheds harsh light on agencies' missteps

Testimony of two in FBI shows how bureau ignored dire warnings

March 25, 2006|By NEIL A. LEWIS AND DAVID JOHNSTON | NEIL A. LEWIS AND DAVID JOHNSTON,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui was supposed to have been the government's best opportunity to hold someone accountable for the deaths on Sept. 11, 2001.

But after federal prosecutors finished laying out their case this week, even those who strongly supported an aggressive prosecution may wonder whether the trial has shed as much light on Moussaoui's culpability as it has on the missteps and mistakes by law enforcement agencies.

The testimony of two prosecution witnesses, in particular, has brought renewed and unwelcome attention to how the FBI dealt with early warning signs.

Moussaoui is the sole person to go to trial in an American courtroom for the attacks, making him a proxy for the 19 hijackers who were killed carrying out the attacks and the chief planners who are being held in secret CIA prisons overseas.

Moussaoui was in jail on Sept. 11, but prosecutors have argued that he deserves to be executed because he lied to investigators about what he knew of al-Qaida plans to fly planes into buildings when he was arrested three weeks earlier on immigration violations.

On Monday, defense lawyers are expected to offer a set of extraordinary trial exhibits, statements about Moussaoui by a handful of senior al-Qaida officials gathered somewhere in the secret overseas detention centers that the CIA maintains.

The jury will be read the statements from detainees, including Khalid Shaik Mohammed, the mastermind of Sept. 11, and Ramzi Binalshibh, its paymaster. Officials expect the two to describe Moussaoui as an unreliable fringe figure in al-Qaida.

The government presentation, which ended Thursday, did not go smoothly. First, the prosecution nearly collapsed after the disclosure that a transportation lawyer working with the prosecutors had coached aviation witnesses.

Although that occurred out of the jury's view, other problems surfaced when the prosecutors presented two witnesses supposed to bolster their case that Moussaoui's lies made him responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths. The two witnesses testified that if he had told the truth on Aug. 16, 2001, the bureau could have moved swiftly to foil the plot.

The first witness, Harry Samit, an FBI agent in Minnesota who questioned Moussaoui at his arrest, firmly asserted that had he been given the truth "we would have several new leads to investigate," and the plot might have been thwarted.

Under cross-examination by Edward B. MacMahon Jr., a court-appointed lawyer for Moussaoui, Samit acknowledged that after the attacks he had written strongly worded reports saying his superiors had improperly blocked his efforts to investigate Moussaoui. He added that he was convinced that Moussaoui was involved in an imminent hijacking plot.

That senior bureau officials dragged their feet on investigating Moussaoui by seeking search warrants from a special intelligence court or a more routine criminal search warrant was not new. But it had never been presented so vividly as a reluctant Samit was obliged to do under cross-examination.

He offered a devastating comment from a supervisor who said pressing too hard to obtain a warrant for Moussaoui would hurt his career. Samit also wrote that his superiors did not act because they were guilty of "criminal negligence" and they were gambling that Moussaoui had little to offer. The lost wager, Samit said, was paid in many lives.

Samit was followed to the witness stand by Michael Rolince, a retired FBI counterterrorism supervisor who similarly recited a list of actions that the bureau could have taken if Moussaoui had described al-Qaida plans.

But when MacMahon began reading from a document detailing many suspicions about Moussaoui's intentions, Rolince interrupted, "Can I ask what document that's coming from?"

MacMahon obliged, noting that it was an urgent memorandum written by Samit on Aug. 18, 2001, hoping to attract the attention of headquarters. Rolince had inadvertently underlined that the agent's suspicions had never risen to his attention.

One problem for the bureau is that the backbone of the prosecution case, that the bureau could have disrupted the plot had Moussaoui admitted all that he knew, represents a revision of conventional wisdom at the agency.

For years, agents have expressed the view that Moussaoui knew little about what his al-Qaida superiors wanted of him and had said that it was highly speculative whether more information would have deterred the attacks.

A number of bureau officials have contended that even if the bureau had more clues about the hijackers, they might have been able only to put them under surveillance because they had not committed any crime.

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