msnbc.com news services
updated 3/21/2006 7:12:39 PM ET 2006-03-22T00:12:39

The headquarters supervisor of the FBI’s international terrorism operations section testified Tuesday he spent about 20 seconds discussing the case of Zacarias Moussaoui before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Later, however, he acknowledged an additional discussion.

Michael Rolince testified at Moussaoui’s death penalty trial that he had two hallway conversations with a subordinate, David Frasca, that dealt primarily with a dispute over whether to get a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer and notebook.

But on cross-examination by defense attorney Edward MacMahon, Rolince conceded that he also later discussed with FBI and CIA officials a plan to have a foreign intelligence service search Moussaoui’s computer once the United States deported him to that service’s country.

Earlier, Rolince said he was warned in a hallway by Frasca that the issue of whether to get a search warrant could not be resolved at a lower level and that a call might be coming from the FBI’s Minneapolis field office for Rolince.

Testimony faults FBI on warnings
“On any given day there were dozens” of debates at his level among the field offices, headquarters and the Justice Department about whether they had enough information to get a search warrant, he said.

His testimony followed statements in court Monday by Harry Samit, the FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui in Minnesota, that FBI superiors ignored his repeated warnings that Moussaoui might be a terrorist interested in hijacking an airliner. The bureau’s failures thwarted an opportunity to prevent the attacks, he said.

Rolince took the stand after the jury saw videotaped testimony that Moussaoui told a roommate in Oklahoma that fighting a holy war was the only way to get to paradise, according to testimony Tuesday.

Jihad as ‘obligation’
A videotaped deposition of Hussein al-Attas, who roomed with Moussaoui before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was played for the jury in Moussaoui’s death penalty trial.

Al-Attas said that Moussaoui talked about jihad, or holy war, every day. “Your obligation, like any other Muslim, is to be ready for jihad,” he quoted Moussaoui as telling him. Al-Attas also said he was told: “This is the only way for me to get to paradise.”

Al-Attas is a Saudi-born Yemeni citizen who was attending the University of Oklahoma when he roomed with Moussaoui for more than a month in the summer of 2001. Moussaoui was taking flight training in Norman, Okla.

When federal agents arrested Moussaoui in Minnesota in August 2001, al-Attas was with him. Al-Attas spent more than a year in jail for making false statements to 9/11 investigators.

On Monday, Samit testified that his belief that Moussaoui was a radical Islamic extremist bent on terrorism was based in part on al-Attas’ statements.

Samit also testified Monday that he worked obsessively after arresting Moussaoui on Aug. 16, 2001, to convince FBI headquarters that Moussaoui warranted a full-scale investigation and that a search warrant should be obtained for his belongings.

Agent charges FBI ‘criminal negligence’
The agent obtained a search warrant only after the Sept. 11 attacks, and attributed the FBI’s failure to launch a timely investigation to “criminal negligence” and careerism by certain agents in FBI headquarters. The bureau’s failures thwarted an opportunity to prevent the attacks, he said.

Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in the Sept. 11 attacks.

He has already pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack aircraft and commit other crimes. But he denies a specific role in 9/11. His sentencing trial will determine his punishment: death or life in prison.

The FBI’s actions between Moussaoui’s arrest and Sept. 11 are crucial to the trial because prosecutors allege that Moussaoui’s lies to Samit prevented the FBI from thwarting or at least minimizing the Sept. 11 attacks. Prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui’s actions caused the death of at least one person on Sept. 11 to obtain a death penalty.

The defense argues that nothing Moussaoui said after his arrest would have made any difference to the FBI because its bureaucratic intransigence rendered it incapable of reacting swiftly to Moussaoui’s arrest under any circumstances.

Atta called 'little terrorist'
The office manager of a flight school, testifying at Moussaoui's sentencing trial, was so unnerved by Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta that she nicknamed him “the little terrorist” months before the deadly attacks.

Susan Hall, the former office manager of Huffman Aviation in Venice, Fla., disclosed her nickname for Atta during testimony Tuesday.

Atta was the presumed ringleader of the airliner hijackings that killed almost 3,000 people. He piloted the first airplane that was smashed into the World Trade Center.

“I found Atta to be very cold and steely in his demeanor. Not friendly and pretty hateful,” Hall said. “I called him 'the little terrorist.'”

Asked why she had that nickname for Atta, Hall said: “He had that aura about him. I just didn't like the aura he gave off.”

Hall said she used the nickname for Atta only with her co-workers but said she never expressed her reservations to the FBI or the Federal Aviation Administration.

Atta and another Sept. 11 hijacker, Marwan al Shehhi, took flying lessons at Huffman beginning in the summer of 2000.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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