The FBI agent who arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001 accused headquarters of criminal negligence for its refusal to investigate Moussaoui aggressively after his arrest, according to court testimony Monday.
Agent Harry Samit testified under cross-examination at Moussaoui’s trial that FBI headquarters’ refusal to follow up “prevented a serious opportunity to stop the 9/11 attacks” that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in the attacks.
The FBI’s actions between Moussaoui’s arrest on immigration violations on Aug. 16, 2001, and Sept. 11, 2001, are crucial to his trial because prosecutors allege that Moussaoui’s lies 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 9/11 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.
Memo predicted aircraft hijacking
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Edward MacMahon, Samit acknowledged that he predicted in an Aug. 18, 2001, memo that Moussaoui was a radical Islamic terrorist in a criminal conspiracy to hijack aircraft. Moussaoui ended up pleading guilty to two specific counts that Samit had explicitly predicted in his Aug. 18 memo.
Despite Samit’s urgent pleadings, FBI headquarters refused to open a criminal investigation and refused Samit’s entreaties to obtain a search warrant.
“You needed people in Washington to help you out?” MacMahon asked.
“Yes,” Samit said.
“They didn’t do that, did they?”
Samit said no.
He confirmed under questioning that he had attributed FBI inaction to “obstructionism, criminal negligence and careerism” in an earlier report.
One FBI supervisor in Washington told Samit that he was getting unnecessarily “spun up” about his concerns over Moussaoui.
Death or life in prison to be determined
Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack aircraft and commit other crimes. The sentencing trial will determine his punishment: death or life in prison.
Moussaoui denies he had anything to do with 9/11 and says he was training for a future attack.
MacMahon also questioned Samit on whether the government could have legally searched Moussaoui’s Minnesota hotel room without first obtaining a warrant.
Samit said that in certain circumstances agents can conduct a search on foreign nationals immediately and obtain a warrant after the fact. But he said in Moussaoui’s case, he and his supervisors determined that it would be best to arrest Moussaoui first.
Samit testified before the trial’s recess last week that Moussaoui lied to him after his arrest and thwarted his ability to obtain a search warrant. Samit said that the FBI would have launched an all-out investigation if it had been able to search Moussaoui’s belongings.
“You blew an opportunity to search ... without arresting him?” MacMahon asked Samit.
Samit responded, “That’s totally false.”
He said he found himself in a bureaucratic bind because he had opened an intelligence investigation on Moussaoui rather than a criminal investigation and therefore needed Justice Department approval to get a search warrant. Many of the barriers between criminal and intelligence investigations were removed after 9/11.
Week in review
Resumption of the trial followed a one-week delay while U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema mulled whether to allow testimony by aviation witnesses considered vital to the government’s effort to secure the death penalty for Moussaoui.
The delay followed revelations that a lawyer with the Transportation Security Administration, Carla Martin, had improperly coached witnesses on their testimony.
Brinkema uncovered even more misconduct during a hearing: Martin falsely told defense attorneys that two TSA employees sought by the defense as potential witnesses were unwilling to meet with the defense, witnesses testified.
Brinkema considered tossing out the government’s death-penalty case entirely, but instead ruled that the government could not present any testimony about aviation security in their case to the jury.
Prosecutors responded that Brinkema’s order amounted to pulling the plug on the case and asked her to reconsider. They said the excluded testimony was crucial because they needed to show the jury what security measures could have been implemented at the nation’s airports if aviation officials had known of the threat posed by Moussaoui and his al-Qaida co-conspirators.
Brinkema relented on Friday and revised her ruling, allowing prosecutors to present testimony from aviation witnesses who were unexposed to Martin’s taint.