A bizarre legal misstep by confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui came back to haunt him Wednesday as he helped confirm for jurors at his sentencing trial that he had said Osama bin Laden ordered him to fly a plane into the White House.
Moussaoui’s action emerged on a poor quality videotape shown in federal court, but it produced a gust of laughter from the packed audience, which is normally dead silent under fear of expulsion.
The legal damage, however, may have been negligible because Moussaoui made the same admission last April when he pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaida to fly airplanes into U.S. buildings.
The unusual development came when prosecutors showed a barely intelligible four-hour-long videotape of a deposition taken in November 2002, when Moussaoui was acting as his own lawyer. Tiring of his constant insults and invective, Judge Leonie Brinkema put his defense back in the hands of court-appointed lawyers 17 months ago.
The videotape showed a prosecutor, Moussaoui and a standby court-appointed defense lawyer questioning Fauzi bin Abu Bakar Bafana. He has admitted he was treasurer of a Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, cell of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Asian terrorist group linked to al-Qaida.
The video linked the judge, Moussaoui and lawyers in the U.S. with lawyers and Bafana in Singapore, where he has been imprisoned since late 2001. The global hookup littered the tape with technical difficulties, including sound often too faint to hear and an echo effect.
In addition, Moussaoui and Bafana were forced to speak in English, which is not their first language.
The result was a video in which the most frequently uttered line was, “Repeat please.”
After three difficult hours of video, six jurors were using their hands to prop up their heads — a sharp contrast to the day before when prosecutors dramatically read accounts of the Sept. 11, 2001, plane crashes and had every juror wide-eyed and leaning forward.
Prosecutor Kenneth Karas got Bafana to describe how Jemaah Islamiyah had him provide lodging in 1999 to a visitor he knew only as John. Bafana apparently misspoke; both sides agree Moussaoui’s Malaysia visit was in 2000.
“He told me he had a dream to fly an airplane into the White House,” Bafana said. “He told me he told his dream to the sheik and the sheik told him to go ahead.” Bafana explained the sheik was al-Qaida chief bin Laden.
‘He looks exactly like you’
Although he had elicited descriptions that fit known events in Moussaoui’s life, Karas rested his direct questioning without having Bafana identify John as Moussaoui. But that government omission was remedied once Moussaoui cross-examined Bafana.
Moussaoui asked Bafana what John looked like.
“He looks exactly like you,” Bafana replied.
Moussaoui: “Looks like me or are you certain it’s me?”
Scrambling to recover, Moussaoui dug himself deeper.
“Maybe somebody looks exactly like me,” Moussaoui offered.
“I confirm that it’s you,” Bafana replied.
Money for flight lessons
Bafana also testified that Moussaoui rejected a flight training school in Malaysia as “too expensive” and asked the group for $10,000 to bankroll his flight training in the United States. But Jemaah Islamiyah’s leader told Bafana to give him only $1,200 and send him back where he came from. The leader thought Moussaoui was cuckoo, Bafana said.
As a lawyer, Moussaoui was constantly objecting to the prosecutor’s line of questions, but Brinkema overruled him most of the time. Moussaoui tried to discredit Bafana’s testimony with a long line of murky questions about his account of a trip to Afghanistan.
Frank Dunham, Moussoui’s standby court-appointed lawyer, had more success. He got Bafana to acknowledge that he was skilled in “funding travel, lying to the authorities and planning operations to kill people.”
Moussaoui claims he was not part of the Sept. 11 plot but rather a possible later assault on the White House. The government argues that if Moussaoui had not lied about his terrorist links and flight training when he was arrested in Minnesota in August 2001, the FBI would have prevented the Sept. 11 attacks.
Defense lawyers say the FBI already knew more about Sept. 11 beforehand than did Moussaoui and still was not able to stop it.