FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui says bureau superiors thwarted chance to avoid 9/11 attacks
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The FBI agent who arrested Zacarias Moussaoui in August 2001 testified Monday he spent almost four weeks trying to warn U.S. officials about the radical Islamic student pilot but “criminal negligence” by superiors in Washington thwarted a chance to stop the 9/11 attacks.FBI agent Harry Samit of Minneapolis originally testified as a government witness, on March 9, but his daylong cross examination by defense attorney Edward MacMahon was the strongest moment so far for the court-appointed lawyers defending Moussaoui. The 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent is the only person charged in this country in connection with al-Qaida’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.MacMahon displayed a communication addressed to Samit and FBI headquarters agent Mike Maltbie from a bureau agent in Paris relaying word from French intelligence that Moussaoui was “very dangerous,” had been indoctrinated in radical Islamic Fundamentalism at London’s Finnsbury Park mosque, was “completely devoted” to a variety of radical fundamentalism that Osama bin Laden espoused, and had been to Afghanistan.Based on what he already knew, Samit suspected that meant Moussaoui had been to training camps there, although the communication did not say that.The communication arrived Aug. 30, 2001. The Sept. 11 Commission reported that British intelligence told U.S. officials on Sept 13, 2001, that Moussaoui had attended an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan. “Had this information been available in late August 2001, the Moussaoui case would almost certainly have received intense, high-level attention,” the commission concluded.But Samit told MacMahon he couldn’t persuade FBI headquarters or the Justice Department to take his fears seriously. No one from Washington called Samit to say this intelligence altered the picture the agent had been painting since Aug. 18 in a running battle with Maltbie and Maltbie’s boss, David Frasca, chief of the radical fundamentalist unit at headquarters.They fought over Samit’s desire for a warrant to search Moussaoui’s computer and belongings. Maltbie and Frasca said Samit had not established a link between Moussaoui and terrorists.Samit testified that on Aug. 22 he had learned from the French that Moussaoui had recruited someone to go to Chechnya in 2000 to fight with Islamic radicals under Emir Ibn al-Khattab. He said a CIA official told him on Aug. 22 or 23 that al-Khattab had fought alongside bin Laden in the past. This, too, failed to sway Maltbie or Frasca.Under questioning from MacMahon, Samit acknowledged that he had told the Justice Department inspector general that “obstructionism, criminal negligence and careerism” on the part of FBI headquarters officials had prevented him from getting a warrant that would have revealed more about Moussaoui’s associates. He said that opposition blocked “a serious opportunity to stop the 9/11 attacks.”The FBI’s actions between Moussaoui’s arrest, in Minnesota 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 discovering the identities of 9/11 hijackers and the Federal Aviation Administration from taking airport security steps.But MacMahon made clear the Moussaoui’s lies never fooled Samit. The agent sent a memo to FBI headquarters on Aug. 18 accusing Moussaoui of plotting international terrorism and air piracy over the United States, two of the six crimes he pleaded guilty to in 2005.To obtain a death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui’s actions led directly to the death of at least one person on 9/11.Moussaoui pleaded guilty last April to conspiring with al-Qaida to fly planes into U.S. buildings. But he says he had nothing to do with 9/11 and was training to fly a 747 jetliner into the White House as part of a possible later attack.Samit’s complaints echoed those raised in 2002 by Coleen Rowley, the bureau’s agent-lawyer in the Minneapolis office, who tried to help get a warrant. Rowley went public with her frustrations, was named a Time magazine person of the year for whistleblowing and is now running for Congress.Samit revealed far more than Rowley of the details of the investigation.MacMahon walked Samit through e-mails and letters the agent sent seeking help from the FBI’s London, Paris and Oklahoma City offices, FBI headquarters files, the CIA’s counterterrorism center, the Secret Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Aviation Administration, an intelligence agency not identified publicly by name in court (possibly the National Security Agency), and the FBI’s Iran, Osama bin Laden, radical fundamentalist, and national security law units at headquarters.Samit described useful information from French intelligence and the CIA before 9/11 but said he was not told that CIA Director George Tenet was briefed on the Moussaoui threat on Aug. 23 and never saw until after 9/11 a memo from an FBI agent in Phoenix about radical Islamists taking flight training there.For each nugget of information, MacMahon asked Samit if Washington officials called to assess the implications. Time after time, Samit said no.MacMahon introduced an Aug. 31 letter Samit drafted “to advise the FAA of a potential threat to security of commercial aircraft” from whomever Moussaoui was conspiring with.But Maltbie barred him from sending it to FAA headquarters, saying he would handle that, Samit testified. The agent added that he did tell FAA officials in Minneapolis of his suspicions.—Associated Press Writer Matthew Barakat contributed to this report.
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