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Prosecutors: Moussaoui was to fly plane into White House

U.S. made allegation in January hearing, new documents say

From Kevin Bohn and Laura Bernardini

Zacarias Moussaoui is the only person publicly charged in the United States in connection with the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Zacarias Moussaoui is the only person publicly charged in the United States in connection with the attacks of September 11, 2001.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui was part of a team of al Qaeda operatives that intended to fly a plane into the White House, possibly on September 11, 2001, federal prosecutors alleged at a closed-door court hearing January 30, according to newly released court documents.

Although court papers previously released in the past seven months referred to the government's theory of Moussaoui's role in the plot, the severely redacted hearing transcript released Friday detailed the government allegation that Moussaoui was going to be part of a fifth hijacking team.

"The evidence is clear," Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Karas said. "Moussaoui was keenly aware of why he was here. It was to fly a plane in the White House."

Moussaoui, who arrived in the United States in February 2001 and underwent pilot training in Oklahoma and Minnesota, denies any role in the September 11 conspiracy, though he acknowledges belonging to al Qaeda. According to defense court papers, Moussaoui claims he expected to participate in a post-September 11 plot against U.S. interests outside the United States.

Attorneys assisting Moussaoui, 35, a French citizen who has been representing himself, have said there is no evidence linking him to the 19 known September 11 hijackers who crashed planes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and field in rural Pennsylvania.

Karas told U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema that Moussaoui knew about the goal of flying planes into buildings.

"The fact that he didn't know the precise whereabouts, or even if we can assume he didn't know the names of the people, doesn't mean he doesn't know the objects of the conspiracy. And his participation goes beyond just sitting around," Karas said.

Karas discounted the contention by Moussaoui's attorneys that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden recommended "close bonds among the hijackers," telling the court that "the muscle" -- the 15 hijackers not believed to have piloted the commandeered passenger jets -- "came in interspersed ... until the days before the plot.

"So whatever close bonds bin Laden is talking about, it doesn't mean months and months of living together and talking about the mission, because that's not what the other hijackers did," Karas said.

Karas' comments came during a hearing in which Moussaoui's attorneys argued for an opportunity to depose captive al Qaeda operative Ramzi Binalshibh, whom the United States suspects of helping plan the attacks. The defense maintains that Binalshibh could help clear Moussaoui.

Moussaoui did not attend the January hearing.

Prosecutors did not indicate whether they believe the alleged attempt to crash a plane into the White House was to have been part of the September 11 plot or was to have taken place at a different time.

Shifting theory

The government's theory of the case has shifted away from the idea, initially put forth by numerous Bush administration figures, that Moussaoui might have been the intended 20th hijacker -- the fifth terrorist on United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania, the only flight that day that had four hijackers.

Besides flight training, Karas cited other actions of Moussaoui's -- attending the paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan, buying knives and a Global Positioning System tracking device in the United States -- that mirrored those of the hijackers.

Moussaoui's attorneys have told the court that Moussaoui failed to earn his pilot's license.

As evidence of Moussaoui's intentions, prosecutors also cited the pretrial testimony of another al Qaeda operative, Faiz Bafana, a Singaporean in custody in Malaysia.

When Moussaoui visited Bafana in Malaysia in 2000, Moussaoui "talked freely when inside Bafana's home about a dream he had to fly an airplane into the White House," according to a court document made public earlier this year.

Bafana and the leader of the al Qaeda faction in Southeast Asia deemed Moussaoui to be "paranoid" and "cuckoo," according to the earlier document.

In the January 30 hearing, Moussaoui attorney lawyer Frank Dunham said, "Our evidence is going to show that Moussaoui was acting in a bizarre way for a long time and that anybody trying to run a disciplined, silent, secret complex operation like 9/11 would never include Mr. Moussaoui in such a plot."

The next day, Brinkema sided with defense arguments that Moussaoui's right to a fair trial depended on letting a jury hear potentially exculpatory testimony from Binalshibh.

Prosecutors reject the description of Binalshibh as a defense-friendly witness and told the U.S Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, in June that "this witness buries the defendant."

Still, the government, citing the national security risks and an aversion to disrupting his military interrogation, appealed Brinkema's order for a videotaped deposition of Binalshibh via satellite.

The appeals court decided it would rule on the appeal only after Brinkema imposes penalties on the government for failing to produce Binalshibh.

Those penalties, which are pending, could range up to her dismissing the case.

Moussaoui has asked the court for access to other top al Qaeda captives, including September 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who is also in U.S. custody.

CNN producer Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this story.

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