FBI 'obstructed' Moussaoui probe
Testimony resumes at sentencing trial after tumultuous week
Monday, March 20, 2006; Posted: 3:49 p.m. EST (20:49 GMT)From Phil Hirschkorn - CNN Monday, March 20, 2006;
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- The FBI agent who arrested and interrogated al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui a month before the September 11, 2001, attacks testified Monday that he believed at the time that Moussaoui was a terrorist intent on hijacking an airplane.
But Minneapolis, Minnesota, agent Harry Samit told jurors, "What I believed and what I could prove are two different things."
Samit blamed FBI headquarters for having "obstructed" the Moussaoui probe, which the government now portrays as the lost opportunity to unlock clues to the 9/11 attacks.
Supervising agents at FBI headquarters repeatedly denied his requests to obtain criminal or national intelligence warrants to search Moussaoui's belongings, Samit testified.
It was discovered after the attacks that Moussaoui's belongings contained contact numbers for a key September 11 attack planner in Germany and short-bladed knives such as the ones the hijackers used to commandeer four jets.
In Monday's rigorous cross-examination, Moussaoui defense attorney Edward MacMahon built on a foundation laid by a Justice Department inspector general's probe and congressional joint inquiry into the investigative shortcomings that preceded the attacks.
The defense attorney's questions brought to light the first public displays of e-mails detailing what MacMahon called a "bureaucratic bind."
Samit also revealed what he admitted in hindsight were errors of his own. They included opening the Moussaoui case as an intelligence investigation, not a criminal one, and failing to ask certain questions of the suspect.
"Although I did create problems for myself, I had no other choice," Samit said.
Agent said he didn't believe Moussaoui
Samit questioned Moussaoui on August 16 and 17, 2001, when the French native of Moroccan descent was initially in custody for an immigration overstay. Samit and an immigration officer arrested Moussaoui after tips from a Minnesota school that offers students training on a Boeing 747 flight simulator.
As he had on March 9, Samit again told the jury that Moussaoui said he was in flight school for fun and intended to visit New York.
Samit said he believed Moussaoui was lying. His traveling companion, a friend from Oklahoma named Hussein al-Attas, had told agents Moussaoui talked about "jihad," or holy war, and his approval of martyrdom.
Samit conceded that he never asked Moussaoui directly if he had been to Afghanistan or attended a terrorist training camp.
Still, he said he considered Moussaoui "the most serious" matter and wrote an urgent 26-page e-mail laying bare his fear that the man was dangerous. More than 50 people at FBI headquarters were copied on the memo.
The Minneapolis office had "cause to believe," Samit wrote, that Moussaoui and unknown others were engaged in a "conspiracy to commit a terrorist act."
Samit needed to show either "probable cause" of a crime to obtain a criminal search warrant or evidence that Moussaoui was here at the behest of a "foreign power" to pursue an intelligence warrant.
Agent: Probe 'shut down'
Three days later, FBI headquarters rejected him. One supervisor said he was getting people "spun up" about Moussaoui.
Samit said he was "shut down" and his office was "denied every tool at the division's disposal."
He never made another request for an intelligence warrant and was forbidden from contacting local federal prosecutors for a criminal one.
Samit later told the inspector general he felt the Washington supervisors performed "misconduct of the most serious kind."
U.S. allies were slow to respond to requests for information regarding Moussaoui, Samit said.
Britain, where Moussaoui lived, did not reply until after September 11. France did communicate a possible Moussaoui connection to Chechen rebels, but such information was not adequate to obtain an intelligence warrant.
Prosecutors contend the lies Moussaoui told Samit, covering up al Qaeda's conspiracy to hijack and crash planes into prominent buildings, contributed to 3,000 murders on September 11. As a result, the government says, Moussaoui deserves the death penalty.
Prosecutors argue that if Moussaoui had alerted law enforcement, the FBI could have identified 11 of the 19 hijackers, and the Federal Aviation Administration could have stopped some of them at airport gates by banning short knives or adding conspirators' names to a "no-fly" list.
Less Profound Than the FBI's Own Negligence?
by James Ridgeway March 21st, 2006 1:09 PM
WASHINGTON, D.C.—FBI Special Agent Harry Samit's testimony yesterday at the Zacarias Moussaoui trial adds just one more piece of evidence to a growing list of incidents showing what Samit himself labeled "criminal negligence."
Samit warned FBI headquarters on August 21, 2001, that Moussaoui wanted to hijack a plane "for the purpose of seizing control of the aircraft." Shortly thereafter he learned from French intelligence that Moussaoui had been a recruiter for a Chechyna group with ties to Osama bin Laden.
Higher ups in the FBI blocked his efforts to get a search warrant, and edited out of his reports any reference to the French.
Samit's testimony is but one of a growing list of incidents involving FBI's failure to take action on information it had received warning of an attack, while at the same time deliberately downplaying the possibilities of an attack.
From the onset of his tenure, Attorney General John Ashcroft had at first received, but later rejected briefings on the Al Qaeda threat. Ashcroft killed an August 2001 plea for an additional $58 million to combat Al Qaeda. In May that year, Ashcroft put out a memo outlining strategic goals of the Justice Department. It made no mention of counterterrorism. Subsequently, in testimony before the 9-11 Commission, Ashcroft blamed the Clinton administration for terrorism failures and said he thought any attack would come from abroad.
According to press reports at the time, the Justice Department leaned on the 9-11 Commission to tone down sections of a staff report on Ashcroft, and the final commission report devoted little more than one page to Ashcroft. It makes no mention of the fact that Ashcroft had decided in the summer of 2001 to begin traveling exclusively by government jet, rather than on commercial airliners.
According to Bureau translators, agents learned in April that bin Laden was planning an attack involving hijacked airliners. Why this didn't sound the alarm, nobody knows. The matter disappeared into the bureaucracy.
The role of the Bureau in muzzling Sibel Edmonds, the interpreter who tried to blow the whistle on the Bureau's translation operations pertaining to 9-11, is well known. The FBI and Justice Department fought to prevent Edmonds from giving public testimony and so far the courts have backed them up.
The most startling occurrence involves the FBI's inability to detect the presence of the two hijackers who flew into Los Angles in 2000, and lived openly in San Diego. They socialized around town and even rented an apartment from the FBI's key informant in the Muslim community there. The informant either didn't tell his handlers at the Bureau about the men or the Bureau didn't act on his information. When the staff of the Congressional Joint Inquiry—the investigation that preceded formation of the 9-11 Commission—discovered what had happened in San Diego, the FBI tried to cover it up, refusing subpoenas to produce the informant for congressional testimony.
In its report, the Joint Inquiry said that five of the hijackers may have had contact with 14 people who had come to the FBI's attention during terrorism investigations. Four of the 14 were the focus of Bureau investigations during the time the hijackers were in the U.S.