A Minneapolis FBI agent testified Monday that he warned in dozens of communications in August 2001 that jailed flight student Zacarias Moussaoui was planning a hijacking and blamed “criminal negligence” by Washington bosses for blunting a chance to stop the Sept. 11 attacks.
Special Agent Harry Samit, under cross-examination as Moussaoui’s death-penalty trial resumed after a week-long recess, acknowledged that French intelligence advised the FBI 12 days before the attacks that Moussaoui was “very dangerous.” A partially declassified French cable of Aug. 30, 2001, also said he had been indoctrinated by Muslim extremists and had been in Afghanistan.
But despite those red flags, Samit said, a request for a special national security warrant to search Moussaoui’s belongings was _ like earlier ones _ shot down by headquarters supervisor Michael Maltbie and his boss, David Frasca. He said Maltbie had voiced concerns that an inadequately documented warrant request would hurt his career.
Samit said headquarters went so far as to delete from one warrant request information from French intelligence that linked the leader of a Chechen rebel group with whom Moussaoui had associated to global al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Headquarters then said that Minneapolis agents had failed to tie Moussaoui to an international terror group.
In early September 2001, Samit told a jury, Maltbie wasted precious time by insisting that an FBI agent in France scour Paris phone directories to ensure that Minneapolis agents were holding the right Zacarias Moussaoui. That disclosure, on a day in which yet more new details emerged about Minneapolis agents’ futile pre-Sept. 11 inquiry of the suspicious young Frenchman of Moroccan origins, drew gasps from spectators in the courtroom who lost loved ones in the suicide hijackings.
Under more than four hours of questioning by defense lawyer Edward MacMahon, Samit also acknowledged that if he had approached things differently, he might have been able to obtain a standard criminal search warrant. He conceded that Moussaoui had made false statements in FBI interviews, a felony.
Testimony in the only U.S. criminal trial stemming from the nation’s deadliest terror attack resumed a week after the case was nearly derailed by revelations that a government lawyer had improperly coached federal aviation witnesses.
In a ruling on Friday, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema agreed to allow prosecutors to propose substitute witnesses “untainted” by contacts with Transportation Security Administration lawyer Carla Martin. Brinkema scheduled an early-morning hearing to question one or more proposed substitute witnesses, outside the jury’s presence to ensure their testimony has not been colored.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty nearly a year ago to six counts of joining in an al Qaeda conspiracy to seize U.S. jetliners and crash them into buildings. The trial is to determine whether he should be executed or spend the rest of his life in prison with no possibility of parole.
MacMahon honed in on the FBI’s mistakes and communications lapses in an effort to underscore bureau weaknesses in both Washington and in Minneapolis. Prosecutors are trying to show beyond a reasonable doubt that investigators would have been able to thwart or diminish the attacks if Moussaoui had told what he knew when questioned by Samit and an immigration agent over two days in August 2001.
Defense lawyers contend that the FBI knew more than Moussaoui in August 2001 but still couldn’t stop hijackers from crashing planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Under questioning from MacMahon, Samit acknowledged telling the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office that Maltbie and Frasca had engaged in “obstructionism, criminal negligence and careerism.”
He said that in eliminating the reference to bin Laden in a warrant request, Maltbie took “a calculated risk that cost us an opportunity to stop the attacks.”
Samit said he knew getting Maltbie’s support for a warrant would be a tall order. He disclosed that in 1999, Maltbie barred him for months from advising the Minnesota National Guard that a relative of a man who had traveled from Minnesota to Afghanistan to train terrorists for the Taliban was seeking to enlist.
Samit, who had worked previously as a naval intelligence officer, said he was concerned because guardsmen have access to the Twin Cities airports. But he said when he sought approval, Maltbie became “extremely agitated” and withheld approval for months, saying “it was just the kind of thing that would get the FBI in trouble.”
Minnesota National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Shannon Pervis said she was unaware of the supposed Guard enlistee, but that extensive checks are conducted on the backgrounds of all applicants.
Asked to comment about Maltbie and Frasca’s conduct, FBI headquarters spokesman Richard Kolko said the bureau would “respect what occurs in the courtroom and withhold any comment” until the trial concludes.