Moussaoui sought deal to testify against himself

Confessed al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui told prosecutors days before his death-penalty trial that he would “testify against himself” if he could have better jail accommodations before he is executed, an FBI agent testified Tuesday.

Special Agent Jim Fitzgerald, who joined prosecutors and a defense lawyer at the Feb. 2 evening meeting in the law library at the city jail, said Moussaoui remarked that he “did not want to spend the rest of his life in a Colorado prison.”

He said Moussaoui volunteered to admit to being the intended pilot of a fifth plane in the Sept. 11 plot as part of a deal, but never asked the government to drop the death penalty. Fitzgerald said the talks fell apart when prosecutors insisted that Moussaoui agree to give his full cooperation, including testifying against other al Qaeda captives.

The latest bizarre disclosure in the case, a day after Moussaoui threw a wrench in his defense by testifying that he was planning to fly the fifth plane into the White House, provided the strongest evidence yet that he hopes to be executed as an al Qaeda martyr. Fitzgerald was the final witness before the case goes to a jury Wednesday, and it appeared that martyrdom would be an issue raised during closing arguments.

The testimony also made it abundantly clear that Moussaoui and his attorneys are working in opposite directions, with the court-appointed defense team now seeking to undermine their client’s testimony.

For jurors to find Moussaoui eligible for a death sentence, they must unanimously conclude that his lies to federal agents when he was arrested in Minnesota in August 2001 prevented the government from diminishing or thwarting the Sept. 11 attacks.

If Moussaoui were deemed to be part of that plot, it would strengthen the government’s case in the only U.S. criminal trial to stem from the suicide hijackings that killed 2,972 people.

Before the defense rested, a court-appointed lawyer read to jurors an excerpt from a transcript of the April 22, 2005, hearing where Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts, while insisting he knew no details of the Sept. 11 plot. At the time, Moussaoui said he was part of a broader al Qaeda plot to seize and crash U.S. jetliners.

Prosecutors called Fitzgerald as their sole rebuttal witness, apparently to show that the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent had acknowledged weeks ago that he was part of the Sept. 11 scheme.

But after acknowledging under cross-examination that Moussaoui made no attempt to avoid the death penalty, Fitzgerald said that the bearded defendant remarked that “it was different dying in battle, like an F-16 fighter pilot, than to die in a jail,” likening it to “a toilet.”

Despite Moussaoui’s potentially suicidal moves, defense lawyers laid out the rest of their case on Tuesday with testimony that sharply contradicted their client’s. They presented extraordinary, declassified “substitutions” for statements from a half dozen al Qaeda captives, none of whom supported Moussaoui’s assertion that he was part of the Sept. 11 operation and some of whom dismissed him as an indiscreet nuisance.

Muhammad Salih Bin Atta, the purported mastermind of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole who is known as “Khallad,” said he assisted some of the Sept. 11 hijackers but was only asked to take Moussaoui to Afghanistan and prepare him for travel to Malaysia. Khallad said he gave Moussaoui an e-mail address and phone number to be used only in an emergency, but Moussaoui phoned him daily, forcing Khallad to cut off the phone.

“Hambali,” a regional leader of the Southeast Asian al Qaeda affiliate Jamaah Islamayah, described Moussaoui as “very troubled _ not right in the head and of bad character.” He complained that Moussaoui prodded operatives for the group into buying 4 tons of ammonium nitrate by asserting it was an order from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Sept. 11 mastermind. But when asked, Sheikh Mohammed professed ignorance, he said.

Hambali said he was frugal, but later paid $2,000 to buy Moussaoui a plane ticket to fly to Europe in hopes he would be rid of him.

Sheikh Mohammed made similar comments in his 56-page summary, which was read to the jury on Monday, and said Moussaoui had no knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks and was being groomed for a possible follow-on attack when he was arrested while taking lessons in flying a 747 jumbo jet.

They did not, however, introduce testimony from Sept. 11 paymaster Ramzi Binalshibh, whose accounts about Moussaoui’s role in the Sept. 11 commission’s report were murkier.

Defense lawyers also played extensive “snippets” of testimony to the Sept. 11 commission by senior Bush administration officials in their push to show that Moussaoui didn’t know enough to help the government stop the attacks. For example, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told the panel that there would not have been time in July 2001 “to make the changes in air security” needed to prevent the hijackings.