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Jurors told Moussaoui's silence aided 9/11 hijackers

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN

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

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ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- Steps could have been taken to stop suicide hijackers if Zacarias Moussaoui had leveled with investigators about his al Qaeda ties, a government witness told jurors Wednesday in the penalty phase of Moussaoui's trial.

Moussaoui, a 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, pleaded guilty to terrorism conspiracy last year, but he has denied any direct connection to the September 11, 2001 attacks. The only issue in the sentencing trial is whether he will receive the death penalty or life in prison.

Robert J. Cammaroto of the Transportation Security Administration said the Federal Aviation Administration could have banned short-blade knives if they had known terrorists were planning to use them to overtake flight crews.

Prior to the 9/11 hijackings, passengers were allowed to carry knife blades up to 4-inches long.

"Don't allow any blades whatsoever," could have been the message in a security directive to all domestic airlines, Cammaroto said.

He conceded, though, that such screening might not have been 100 percent effective. "I don't believe it would be possible," he said.

Under cross examination, Cammaroto was made to remind jurors that scissors, screwdrivers, knitting needles and glass bottles -- all of which could be used as weapons -- were allowed on board.

Cammaroto also said the computerized passenger screening system, which selected certain passengers to have their checked luggage inspected, could have been changed so selectees would have been subject to physical screenings, as well.

This was significant because about half of the 19 hijackers were selected to have their luggage screened on 9/11. Some had no bags inspected, while the rest had luggage checked for explosives and held until they boarded their planes.

The jury was shown the security tape of the five Pentagon hijackers passing through security screening at Dulles International Airport outside Washington. The video showed how carry-on luggage belonging to hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi was swabbed for explosives residue and then returned to him.

If aviation officials had been warned to look for small knives, Cammaroto said, screeners could have been forced to empty carry-ons and inspect their contents, recalibrate metal detectors to make them more sensitive and routinely subjected passengers to pat-downs.

Cammaroto told jurors the biggest perceived threat to airliners prior to 9/11 were bombs such as the one used in the 1988 Pan Am 103 explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland. There had not been a U.S. hijacking in a decade.

"It was the general belief the larger threat was overseas," Cammaroto said.

He said the possibility of a suicide hijacking was never considered by authorities, but the defense sought to contradict that during cross-examination, The Associated Press reported.

Cammaroto also said that flight crews were taught to avoid confrontation and prolong any hijacking attempt on the theory that the longer the incident lasted, the better the chances of survival.

Substitute testimony

Cammaroto's three-hour appearance in the death penalty proceeding was meant to bolster prosecutors' arguments that airlines could have sufficiently tightened aviation security if Moussaoui, after he was arrested in August 2001, had told authorities about al Qaeda's plan to hijack and crash planes into buildings.

The defense maintains the government would not have acted swiftly enough, if at all, to secure all 18,000 domestic U.S. flights daily.

There's been no evidence that Moussaoui knew the hijackers or which four flights were targeted.

Cammaroto said authorities also potentially could have used federal air marshals to bolster security, AP reported. Before 9/11, there were only 35 air marshals, and most traveled on overseas flights.

Before joining the Transportation Security Administration, Cammaroto spent 25 years with the FAA and for a decade oversaw security directives to the airlines.

His testimony substituted for that of two FAA security officials who U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema deemed tainted because of communications they received from TSA lawyer Carla Martin.

The improper communications also caused four FAA and TSA witnesses scheduled for the defense to be struck from the case.

Missed chances

During testimony Wednesday morning, the jury heard how the FAA missed several opportunities to investigate three of the 9/11 hijacker-pilots or suspend their FAA-issued pilot licenses.

Mohamed Atta, from Egypt, and Marwan al-Shehhi, from United Arab Emirates -- the pair who crashed Boeing 767s into the World Trade Center's twin towers -- were involved in two incidents of recklessness at Florida airports.

Atta and al-Shehhi, according to testimony, abandoned a small plane rented from their flight school, Huffman Aviation in Venice, Florida, on a runway at Miami International Airport on December 26, 2000.

Daniel Pursell, Huffman's chief flight instructor, told the jury the FAA called him for details but did not interview the pilots.

"They might should have, but I don't think they did," Pursell said.

A few months later, Atta and al-Shehhi landed a small plane at a Clearwater, Florida, airport after dark, breaking the airport's curfew.

Pursell admonished them, but again, there was no investigation.

Around the same time in Phoenix, Arizona, Hani Hanjour, from Saudi Arabia, showed up for jet simulator training at JetTech.

Peggy Chevrette, the school's general manager, told jurors Hanjour had a commercial pilot's license but lacked the appropriate skills, arousing her suspicions.

Hanjour was not fluent in English, as U.S.-licensed pilots are required to be, she said. He had one-tenth the flying hours of a normal student, and paid $7,000 cash for the training in early 2001.

"He was insistent that he could finish the course," Chevrette testified. The school permitted him to use the simulator.

"He didn't want to do the takeoff and landing program. He just wanted to fly the simulator in the air," she said.

Chevrette said she called the local FAA official assigned to her school and asked, based on his language deficiency alone, how Hanjour possibly qualified for a license.

The FAA official suggested the flight school get Hanjour a translator and told her Hanjour's license was legitimate.

On September 11, 2001, that same official called to tell Chevrette "my worst nightmare had been realized," she said.

Chevrette said as soon as she heard about the multiple hijackings, she had a premonition Hanjour was involved. He crashed a jetliner into the Pentagon.

"I remember crying all the way to work knowing our company helped do this," she said.

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