ALEXANDRIA, Virginia - The FBI agent who arrested Zacarias Moussaoui weeks before Sept. 11 told a federal jury Monday that his own superiors were guilty of "criminal negligence and obstruction" for blocking his attempts to learn whether the terrorist was part of a larger cell about to hijack planes in the United States.
During intense cross-examination, Special Agent Harry Samit — a witness for the prosecution — accused his bosses of acting only to protect their positions within the FBI.
His testimony appeared to undermine the prosecution's case for the death penalty. Prosecutors argue that had Moussaoui cooperated by identifying some of the 19 hijackers, the FBI could have alerted airport security and kept them off the planes.
Moussaoui is the only person to have been convicted in the United States on charges stemming from Sept. 11. His sentencing trial began several weeks ago, but the prosecution's case was nearly gutted when it was learned that a lawyer for the Transportation Security Administration had improperly coached key aviation security witnesses. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema decided to allow the government to present a limited amount of aviation testimony and evidence.
Samit's recollections Monday were the first ground-level account of how FBI agents in Minneapolis — where Moussaoui was arrested on a visa violation 3½ weeks before the attacks — were appalled that their Washington supervisors denied their requests for search warrants in the effort to find out why the Frenchman was taking flying lessons and what role he might have in a wider plan to attack America.
"They obstructed it," a still-frustrated Samit told the jury, calling his superiors' actions a calculated management decision "that cost us the opportunity to stop the attacks."
The government considers Samit's testimony essential to its case. On March 9, the agent told the court about his arrest of Moussaoui, now 37, and his desperate efforts to win the suspect's cooperation.
Yet much of his testimony Monday might have backfired on the government. The jury easily could have been left with the impression of an FBI so at odds with itself that it not only missed critical clues of an impending terrorist attack, but did not even know how best to coordinate efforts to stop it.
Samit was not alone in his contempt for his superiors.
His suspicions were backed up by Coleen Rowley, then an FBI lawyer in Minneapolis, who in a May 2002 memo to FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III complained that Washington had blocked efforts to determine what Moussaoui was really doing. Rowley is not scheduled to testify during the sentencing phase.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty last year to being a part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy. His lawyers maintain that the government had plenty of leads in the summer of 2001 that a major terrorist action was afoot, even without Moussaoui's cooperation. They point to a memo by an FBI agent in Phoenix warning of Middle Eastern men taking flying lessons, and the fact that then-CIA Director George J. Tenet was apprised of Moussaoui's arrest.
Samit testified Monday that he never knew of the Phoenix memo or of Tenet's interest in the case. He also said he was kept in the dark about the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing given to Bush during his vacation in Texas. That briefing, titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," noted "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks."
"I didn't see it," Samit testified. "I did not see anything like that."
Defense lawyer Edward B. MacMahon Jr. also used his cross-examination of Samit to suggest that law enforcement officials never took such threats seriously then anyway.
Under MacMahon's daylong questioning, Samit said that officials at the FBI headquarters in Washington rejected a series of attempts to obtain a warrant to search Moussaoui's personal belongings.
Had the belongings been opened before Sept. 11, agents would have found numerous small knives, jumbo-jet pilot manuals, rosters of flight schools and other clues that might have helped them understand the Sept. 11 plot.
Samit wanted to seek a criminal search warrant, and later one from a special intelligence court. But officials at the FBI headquarters refused to let him, because they did not believe he had enough evidence to prove Moussaoui was anything but a wealthy man who had come to this country to follow his dream of becoming a pilot.
He said that as Washington kept telling him there was "no urgency and no threat," his FBI superiors sent him on "wild goose chases."
For a while, Samit said, they did not even believe Moussaoui was the same person whom French intelligence sources had identified as a Muslim extremist. Samit said that FBI headquarters wanted him and his fellow agents to spend days poring through Paris phone books to make sure they had the right Moussaoui.
Samit said that when he asked permission to place an Arabic-speaking federal officer as a plant inside Moussaoui's cell to find out what Moussaoui was up to, Washington said no.
And he said that when he prepared a lengthy memo about Moussaoui for Federal Aviation Administration officials, Washington deleted key sections, including a part connecting Moussaoui with Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Samit said he was so frustrated and so convinced that attacks were imminent that he bypassed FBI officials in Washington and met with an FAA officer he knew in Minneapolis. But he said FAA agents never got back to him, and never asked to see a pair of small knives, similar to box cutters, that Samit had found in Moussaoui's pocket and in his car.
Samit further described how he took it upon himself to cable the Secret Service that the president's safety might be in jeopardy. He recounted in the cable how Moussaoui had told him he hoped to be able to one day fly a Boeing 747 from London's Heathrow Airport to New York, and how he also hoped to visit the White House one day.
Samit said he warned the Secret Service that those desires could spell disaster. "If he seizes an airplane from Heathrow to New York City," Samit alerted the Secret Service, "it will have the fuel on board to reach D.C."
Samit said he never heard back from the Secret Service either.
And yet, the agent said, he never officially complained to the FBI hierarchy.
"Street agents don't call headquarters and request that supervisors be removed from cases," he said. "I didn't agree with them, but they are in charge."
But Samit said his immediate boss in Minneapolis, FBI Special Agent Greg Jones, did urge Washington to be more receptive.
Samit said he once overheard Jones on the phone with headquarters, telling FBI superiors that Minneapolis was trying to keep Zacarias Moussaoui "from flying an airplane into the World Trade Center."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Samit said he asked Jones about that conversation, and Jones said he had just made up the scenario as a hypothetical to try to get Washington moving. "He pulled it out of the air," Samit said. "It was a lucky guess."
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times