- 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
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
- 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
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 Moussaouiís 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
ìa 747 loaded with fuel can be used as a bomb.î
- 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 Moussaouiís 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
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 ìraised
new questions about why the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies
did not prevent the hijackings.î
FBI officials responded indirectly to this criticism, flatly denying the
account of the warning given by the flight school personnel. ìThe
notion of flying a plane into a building or using it as a bomb never came
up,î one senior official to the Washington Post January 2. ìIt
was a straight hijacking scenario that they were worried about.î
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 were lies.
- 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 countriesóRussia, Germany, Israel
and Egyptógave 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 forwardówhether
they knew its full dimensions or notóin order to provide the necessary
pretext for carrying out a right-wing agenda of military intervention
abroad and attacks on democratic rights at home.