Moussaoui trial just another political sideshow

Prosecutors’ failure to get the death sentence for September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday was not a setback in the wider war on terrorism because the case was just a sideshow, analysts said.

Several former officials said putting to death the only man convicted for a role in the 2001 attacks would not have boosted the fight against terrorism since he was only a tangential player in the plot.

Moussaoui’s execution might have hurt security by making him a martyr in the eyes of extremist sympathizers, so a lifetime in prison was a more effective punishment, they said.

“The government may view this as a setback, but if so, they had a mistaken perception of what was going in this case and the importance of this case to the broader war on terror,” said Daniel Benjamin, a White House official under President Bill Clinton.

“It was a mistake of the government to make Moussaoui the poster child for the 9/11 conspiracy to begin with,” he said. “A review of their prosecutorial strategy is in order.”

Roger Cressey, a former Bush administration official who was on the National Security Council on September 11, said the verdict was “irrelevant for national security” but a disappointment for a government that had vigorously pursued the case for more than four years.

“Personally, I would love nothing more than to see him cook. As someone who was there on 9/11 in the situation room, who worked this issue for years, I would like to see him dead,” Cressey said. “It has nothing to do with national security. I think it is more about just the closure of seeing him cook.”


Benjamin and other experts said the verdict ensured Moussaoui would not die a martyr or become an inspiration for other would-be militants.

“Why would you want to make someone who wants to be martyred by the West into a martyr and give a propaganda coup to terrorists?” said Benjamin, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Carie Lemarque, whose mother was killed in the September 11 attacks, said the sentence was the best way to get Moussaoui out of the headlines and into a high security prison for life.

“He’s an al Qaeda wannabe and he does not deserve any credit for 9/11 because he was not part of it, and I am so glad the jury recognized that,” she told reporters outside the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

Despite some legal victories in its struggle against terrorism, the government has suffered a string of losses in court and critics say there have been few major convictions.

But the Moussaoui trial was unlikely to set a precedent because his confessed role was so unique that the ruling would not be relevant to future cases of suspects held at Guantanamo Bay or other U.S. prisons overseas, some experts said.

Gen. Russ Howard, a retired Army terrorism expert, said worries about whether the verdict was a setback would fade fast in the face of more serious problems, like President George W. Bush’s sagging approval ratings, the ongoing chaos in Iraq and the failure to catch Osama bin Laden.

“I don’t think people are going to dwell on it too much. It’ll be page seven in a week. Bush’s popularity is already so low, it’s not going to go lower because of this,” Howard said.

“Maybe a minor disappointment, maybe a minor setback. But it’s certainly not going to hurt the administration any more than it’s already hurting.”

© 2006 Reuters