Skip to main content
Search
Services
LAW CENTER

Moussaoui's fate a matter of 'What if?'

U.S. insists truth could have thwarted 9/11 plot

By Phil Hirschkorn
CNN

RELATED

YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Air Transportation
Bioterrorism
September 11 attacks

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- Whether Zacarias Moussaoui lives or dies boils down to one question: "What if?"

Prosecutors laid out their case this week: Had Moussaoui told the truth when he was questioned 25 days before the attacks of September 11, 2001, FBI agents might have tracked down the terrorists before they were able to execute their plan.

Moussaoui has admitted being an al Qaeda agent but denied that he was to have taken part in the September 11 plot. He was arrested on immigration charges in August 2001. The government is seeking the death penalty against him.

For three hours this week, jurors saw a dazzling interactive display showing how the FBI quickly figured out the connections between the terrorist pilots of the four hijacked passenger jets, and at least seven of their "muscle" hijackers who attacked the flight crews.

It was a tour de force of investigative skill -- tracing records of telephone calls between the U.S.-based operatives and their overseas paymasters, tracking those numbers to addresses where the hijackers lived, obtaining bank and shopping records of the men, and discovering what flight schools they attended to train for their mission.

But however rapid the detective work was, it all unfolded after the fact -- with the help of all 11,000 FBI agents. Could the same web of al Qaeda terrorism in America have been unraveled in the days between Moussaoui's arrest and the attacks?

The premise of the testimony and presentation by Aaron Zebley, the last government witness, was that if Moussaoui had admitted to being a would-be hijacker, FBI agents might have tracked down the terrorists who were then days away from buying their plane tickets.

U.S.: Lies protected 9/11 plot

Instead, Moussaoui told a series of lies, which prosecutors contend protected the plot. His lies, they claim, make Moussaoui liable for at least one of the 2,793 deaths that occurred when jets slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

The defense counterweight to this theory has been to show the FBI's bureaucratic blocking of the Moussaoui leads, such as they were, and the government's slowness to act on information in its possession about two leading hijackers who lived openly in the United States for 18 months before the attacks.

"The FBI has to have a confession before anybody listens?" asked Moussaoui defense attorney Edward MacMahon while cross-examining Zebley.

"Everyone would have been listening," a slightly rattled Zebley said, had Moussaoui admitted why he was rushing to complete a Boeing 747 jet simulator training, why he was buying knives with short blades and who was sending him money.

If only Moussaoui allowed the arresting agents to look at his belongings, they would have found Western Union receipts for $14,000 in wire transfers from Germany and the name and phone number of the sender handwritten in Moussaoui's notebook.

That information, Zebley said, would have been "something you could run with."

Moussaoui's money transfers would have led the FBI to a key coordinator of the plot -- Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni who tried and failed four times to acquire a visa to come to the United States. He sent Moussaoui the cash and facilitated the activities of three hijacker-pilots who once shared an apartment with him in Hamburg.

Using telephone records, Zebley showed how Binalshibh called an an Qaeda operative in United Arab Emirates to get the money for Moussaoui, and how that UAE number opened the door to the hijackers, who had also called that number repeatedly in the summer of 2001. The phone calls revealed home addresses, flight schools and communications among the conspirators.

"Was that information available to the FBI in August 2001?" prosecutor Robert Spencer asked Zebley.

"It could have been," Zebley said. Building one layer of information onto another led to 11 of 19 hijackers.

Agent: No 20th hijacker

Under cross examination, Zebley conceded Moussaoui never called that UAE telephone number or any of the 19 hijackers.

"I don't think there's any such thing as a 20th hijacker," he said.

Carrie Lemack, whose mother, Judy LaRoque, was aboard the American Airlines jet that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, has been watching via closed circuit broadcast available to families in Boston, Massachusetts, where two of the four hijacked planes originated.

"The 'what coulds' go a lot further than Moussaoui," Lemack says. "What could the government have done if they talked to Moussaoui more? If they had someone try to talk to him in Arabic?" she says.

Lemack, who attended many hearings of the 9/11 Commission, says many inside government did not act on the dire warnings about al Qaeda by former White House counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke and former CIA Director George Tenet.

"If Lee Harvey Oswald told someone he was going to shoot JFK, they could have saved him, too. I thought it was the government's job to investigate, not make terrorists do it for them If we're just waiting for the terrorists to tell us where they're going to strike next, we're never going to stop them," Lemack said. (9/11 families feel let down)

Zebley's summary came a day after a senior Transportation Security Administration official said stricter security could have been put in place at airports before September 11, had officials known of a conspiracy to hijack airliners using small knives.

Moussaoui eager to testify

Robert Cammaroto said he could have issued a security directive banning short knives, and mandating the airlines, which oversaw gate check-ins in those days, to do physical searches of passengers whose luggage was selected for additional screening.

"We could have done it in a couple of hours," he said. The FAA knew that Muslim fundamentalists plotted to use airplanes as weapons, he said, but the threat was perceived to be overseas.

The fear that Moussaoui was a potential hijacker was first expressed by Harry Samit, the FBI agent who arrested him outside Minneapolis.

The day after Moussaoui stopped talking, Samit began sending e-mail to FBI superiors about Moussaoui. He would send 70 in all, many in frustration as FBI headquarters deemed insufficient his requests for warrants to search Moussaoui's belongings.

The missed opportunities, independent of Moussaoui, to locate the hijackers is the theme of Moussaoui's defense.

One of the possible defense witnesses when the trial resumes Monday may be the defendant. Moussaoui, who rarely speaks to his attorneys, has said he intends to testify.

"I will testify whether you want it or not," he declared Thursday as he left court.

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN
CNN.com gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN
CNN.com gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.

City:
Search
© 2007 Cable News Network.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by CNN.com
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines