Agent blames FBI for blocking investigation before Sept. 11
TERRORISM: The Minnesota-based agent said his superiors turned down many requests to search Zacarias Moussaoui's belongings and laptop computer.
HEARST NEWSPAPERS | March 21 2006
By STEWART M. POWELL
ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- With precious days slipping away and the 19 al-Qaeda hijackers relentlessly moving into position to strike, FBI headquarters repeatedly thwarted an FBI field agent's effort to investigate arrested hijack suspect Zacarias Moussaoui and alert the nation to the possibility of a catastrophic attack, according to the field agent's testimony Monday.
FBI Special Agent Harry Samit arrested Moussaoui 26 days before the attacks. He accused his FBI superiors of "criminal negligence" as he outlined a heartbreaking chronology of foiled opportunities to unravel the al-Qaeda plot between the time Moussaoui was arrested on an immigration violation outside the Residence Inn in Eagan, Minn., and the Sept. 11 attacks.
FBI headquarters in general -- and FBI Supervisory Agent Mike Maltbie in particular -- stymied efforts by the FBI's Minnesota office to search Moussaoui's belongings and laptop computer. The FBI headquarters also blocked a plan to surreptitiously assign an Arabic-speaking law enforcement officer to the cell adjacent to Moussaoui in hopes of picking up information from the French citizen of Moroccan descent, Samit testified.
Frustrated FBI agents in Minneapolis finally settled on a plan to escort Moussaoui to France as part of deportation proceedings to enable French authorities to examine the contents of Moussaoui's belongings upon arrival in France in hopes of determining why Moussaoui paid $8,300 cash for flight simulator training on a Boeing 747 simulator when he didn't even have a pilot's license, Samit said.
Samit said that his superiors at FBI headquarters, led by Maltbie, even quibbled over which federal agency would pay for Moussaoui's flight to France. The final authorization for the flight didn't come until Sept. 10.
"You tried to move heaven and earth to get someone to look into this man's belongings," court-appointed defense lawyer Edward MacMahon said. "You were obstructed in every way."
"Yes sir, I was obstructed," Samit replied.
Samit answered questions during more than five hours of cross examination. Samit acknowledged that he had accused superiors at FBI headquarters of "obstructionism, criminal negligence and careerism" for blocking so many promising avenues to investigate Moussaoui after his arrest.
Samit said FBI headquarters thwarted "a serious opportunity to stop the 9/11 attacks."
MacMahon elicited testimony from Samit showing that Maltbie voiced such doubts about Moussaoui's identity that he even had FBI agents at the U.S. Embassy in Paris scour Paris telephone books to determine whether there was more than one Zacarias Moussaoui in France.
Special Agent Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman, declined substantive comment on Samit's allegations. "It is obviously an ongoing trial being run by the Department of Justice," Kolko said. "We respect what occurs in the courtroom and withhold any comment until after all the proceedings are completed."
Samit said Maltbie had been such a chronic "obstructionist" to field agents seeking warrants that the FBI supervisor delayed for nine months Samit's 2000 bid to check on a Taliban terrorist trainer heading to Afghanistan who had a relative trying to enlist in the Minnesota National Guard. Samit said Maltbie initially blocked his efforts to alert the Army about the recruit's ties to a Taliban terrorist trainer.
Samit said he tried to alert Washington in a 25-page high-priority "electronic communication" on Aug. 18, 2001, that Moussaoui had told investigators shortly after his Aug. 16 arrest that he had plans to visit the Statute of Liberty, the Empire State Building and the White House. Samit told superiors that he suspected Moussaoui was training on a simulator to hijack a plane, that the knives he was carrying signaled an intention to disable an airline crew and that he had a desire to use the hijacked aircraft "to his own ends."
But Samit said his investigative conclusions regarding the White House were drained from the cable that FBI headquarters relayed to U.S. Secret Service headquarters.
Samit added: "Any part of the United States that Mr. Moussaoui was interested in was of grave concern to me."
Samit recalled that FBI Supervisory Agent Greg Jones in Minneapolis fruitlessly tried to energize Maltbie to help obtain search warrants in a heated telephone call by insisting that FBI field agents were merely "trying to prevent Zacarias Moussaoui from flying a plane into the World Trade Center."
Samit said Jones' citation of the World Trade Center was drawn out of thin air, because there was no evidence at that point that Moussaoui or anyone else had a plan in place to strike the towers. Samit said he asked Jones later why he had chosen to mention the World Trade Center.
"It was just a lucky guess," Jones replied, according to Samit's testimony.
Samit also said FBI headquarters thwarted his efforts to alert Federal Aviation Administration headquarters about Moussaoui, forcing him to meet face-to-face with FAA counterparts in Minneapolis to brief them on his suspicions.
"You fought the good fight," an intelligence agency employee identified only as "Cathy" e-mailed Samit on Sept. 10, 2001 -- the day before al-Qaeda hijackers drove four commandeered commercial airliners into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in western Pennsylvania. "God help us if the next terrorist incident involves the same type of plane (as the Boeing 747 that Moussaoui was training to fly)."
The proceedings stem from Moussaoui's guilty plea last April 22 to six charges arising from the Sept. 11 attacks, leaving jurors to decide whether he should face execution or life imprisonment. Moussaoui claims he was not part of the Sept. 11 plot, having been sent by terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden for a second wave of attacks that never took place.
The FBI's actions between Moussaoui's arrest and the Sept. 11 attacks are crucial because prosecutors say that Moussaoui prevented authorities from uncovering the Sept. 11 plot.
MacMahon argued that Moussaoui never fooled Samit.
To obtain a death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui's actions led directly to the death of at least one person during the Sept. 11 attacks.
Last modified March 21, 2006