The case of Zacarias Moussaoui raises many questions about
the conduct of the FBI and other US intelligence agencies in the period
leading up the September 11. It is the clearest example of the almost inexplicable
refusal on the part of these agencies to take any action that could have
prevented the bloodiest terrorist attack in American history.
Moussaoui was arraigned January 3 on six counts of conspiracy
to commit murder and terrorism in the September 11 attacks. A French-born
man of Moroccan Arab descent, Moussaoui refused “in the name of Allah”
to make a plea, and a plea of not guilty was entered for him at the request
of his public defender.
The 30-minute hearing in a federal courthouse in Alexandria,
Virginia concluded with US District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema setting a trial
date for next October, despite defense protests that this would put jury
selection around the first anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade
Center and Pentagon.
Defense lawyers suggested they would seek a change of venue
from Alexandria, only a few miles from the Pentagon where 189 people were
killed when a hijacked American Airlines jet slammed into the building on
September 11. Brinkema indicated that she was not inclined to grant a change
of venue, saying that a fair jury could be found in northern Virginia.
Four of the six charges against Moussaoui carry the death
penalty, although he was arrested a month before the September 11 attacks
and therefore could not have played any active role in the mass murder.
Prosecutors have until March 29 to announce whether they will seek death
sentences. Moussaoui would be the first French citizen to face the death
penalty in the United States since the US Supreme Court restored the death
penalty in 1976.
FBI refusal to act
Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota August 16 after officials
of a flight school, the Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, a
suburb of Minneapolis, tipped off the FBI that he was seeking flight training
on a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
His conduct aroused suspicion: his attitude was belligerent,
he was evasive about his personal background, he declined to speak French
with an instructor who knew the language, and he paid the $6,300 fee in
cash. He insisted on training to fly a jumbo jet despite an obvious lack
of skill even with small planes. The prospective student reportedly did
not want to learn how to take off or land, only how to steer the jet while
it was in the air.
The instructor and a vice president of the flight school briefed
two Democratic congressmen from the Minneapolis area in November about their
repeated efforts to get the FBI to take an interest in Moussaoui’s
conduct. Their accounts were first reported in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune,
then in the New York Times December 22.
The vice president of the flight school, who briefed Minnesota
Congressmen James Oberstar and Martin Sabo, said it took four to six phone
calls to the FBI to find an agent who would help. The instructor became
so frustrated by the lack of response that he gave a prescient warning to
the FBI that “a 747 loaded with fuel can be used as a bomb.”
Investigation blocked in Washington
Moussaoui was detained by the Immigration and Naturalization
Service on charges of violating the terms of his visa. Local FBI investigators
in Minneapolis immediately viewed Moussaoui as a terrorist suspect and sought
authorization for a special counterintelligence surveillance warrant to
search the hard drive of his home computer. This was rejected by higher-level
officials in Washington, who claimed there was insufficient evidence to
meet the legal requirements for the warrant.
FBI agents tracked Moussaoui’s movements to the Airman
Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma, where he logged 57 hours of flight time
earlier in 2001 but was never allowed to fly on his own because of his poor
skills. This alone should have set off alarm bells, since a confessed Al
Qaeda operative, Abdul Hakim Murad, had trained at the same school, as part
of preparations for a suicide hijack attack on CIA headquarters. Murad testified
about these plans in the 1996 trial of Ramzi Ahmed Yusef, the principal
organizer of the 1993 World Trade Center car-bombing.
Several of the September 11 hijackers had either enrolled
in or visited the Oklahoma flight school, as a more thorough investigation
determined in the aftermath of the suicide hijackings.
On August 26, FBI headquarters was notified by French intelligence
that Moussaoui had ties to the Al Qaeda organization and Osama bin Laden.
Even this report did not spur the agency to action. A special counterterrorism
panel of the FBI and CIA reviewed the information against him, but concluded
there was insufficient evidence that he represented any threat, despite
his refusal to answer questions and the French allegations. Moussaoui was
not even transferred from INS detention to FBI custody until after September
The French warning arrived on the day after the first two
suicide hijackers purchased their one-way, first class tickets for flights
on September 11. More tickets were purchased on August 26, 27, 28 and 29,
while the FBI was refusing to pursue a more intensive investigation into
Moussaoui or search his computer.
The New York Times commented December 22 that the Moussaoui
case “raised new questions about why the Federal Bureau of Investigation
and other agencies did not prevent the hijackings.”
FBI officials responded indirectly to this criticism, flatly
denying the account of the warning given by the flight school personnel.
“The notion of flying a plane into a building or using it as a bomb
never came up,” one senior official to the Washington Post January
2. “It was a straight hijacking scenario that they were worried about.”
This issue is of critical importance, and the flight school
instructor, unlike the FBI, has absolutely no reason to lie. In the wake
of September 11, FBI Director Robert Mueller flatly declared that the FBI
had no indication that terrorists were seeking to use hijacked airliners
as flying bombs. His assurances were accepted uncritically by the American
media. The account given by the flight school shows that these assurances
A security stand-down
The Moussaoui case is only one of a number of indications
that the US government had ample warning that a major terrorist operation
was under way in the United States and yet did nothing to preempt or block
* The governments of at least four countries—Russia,
Germany, Israel and Egypt—gave Washington specific warnings of terrorist
attacks in the United States involving the use of hijacked airplanes as
weapons, in the months leading up to September 11.
* The US government itself had multiple indications of the
danger of suicide hijackings, based on its own investigations into other
terrorist attacks attributed to Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
* The US government was monitoring the electronic communications
of bin Laden and his associates during the extensive period of advance planning
which preceded the September 11 attack.
* Several of the September 11 hijackers, including Mohammed
Atta, the alleged ringleader, were under direct surveillance by US agencies
as suspected terrorists during 2000 and 2001.Yet they were allowed to travel
freely into and out of the US and eventually carry out their plans.
September 11 took place amid a virtual stand-down of the security
forces which permits no innocent explanation. The circumstances of the terrorist
attacks deserve the most serious and conscientious investigation. Both the
Bush administration and the Democrats and Republicans in Congress have rejected
any such probe, suggesting that to question the role of the FBI, CIA and
other intelligence agencies is unpatriotic.
But the facts which are known so far point to the conclusion
that officials at the highest levels of the US government knew that a major
terrorist attack was under way and made no serious effort to prevent it.
The political motive can be inferred: they permitted an attack to go forward—whether
they knew its full dimensions or not—in order to provide the necessary
pretext for carrying out a right-wing agenda of military intervention abroad
and attacks on democratic rights at home.
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