- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

The Justice Department refused an FBI request in August for a national security warrant to search a computer belonging to a French Algerian now being held as a material witness in the Sept. 11 attack on America.

The FBI request to search the computer of Zacarias Moussaoui, made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), was rejected by department lawyers, according to congressional sources who learned about the denial at a briefing yesterday.

Justice Department officials had said the agents lacked sufficient information to justify the warrant, including the requirement that the FBI show that Mr. Moussaoui was "an agent" of a foreign government.

The department's decision to reject the request, according to the sources, raises questions on what the FBI might have learned at the time and where it may have led as the terrorists' suicide plot unfolded.

At the time of the request, the FBI agents had been told by officials at a flight school in Eagan, Minn., that Mr. Moussaoui offered cash for lessons on how to steer a commercial jetliner but not to take off or land it.

The agents also had been alerted by intelligence officials in France that Mr. Moussaoui was on a "watch list," suspected of having ties to associates of an Algerian terrorist organization that had traveled to Afghanistan, the sources said.

Mr. Moussaoui was taken into custody on Aug. 17 on immigration charges. The attacks in New York and on the Pentagon occurred 25 days later. He has since been moved to New York, where he is being questioned by the FBI's terrorism task force as a material witness in the case.

"Somebody needs to more adequately explain how this happened," said one official who attended the congressional briefing. "If there is a good explanation, I think we need to hear it."

Following the attacks, the FBI obtained a warrant for the hard drive and found information concerning jetliners and crop-dusters. The sources declined to elaborate.

As a material witness, the government believes Mr. Moussaoui should be detained because he has information that could be relevant to the investigation.

Federal law-enforcement authorities believe he may have been part of the suicide plot but had been apprehended before it could take shape. They said he has declined to cooperate in the ongoing probe.

Mr. Moussaoui reportedly had sought flight training in Minnesota and Oklahoma. At one point, he asked flight-school officials about opening cabin doors on Boeing aircraft and other questions that prompted the instructors to call police. The Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 6,000 people used Boeing 757s and 767s.

Justice Department spokeswoman Susan Dryden was unavailable last night for comment.

Meanwhile, an Algerian man convicted in April of plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport during the 2000 millennium celebration is believed to be cooperating with federal authorities in the FBI investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Authorities said Ahmed Ressam, 34, would be a key witness in any investigation of Osama bin Laden based on his first-hand knowledge of al Qaeda, the terrorist organization founded and funded by bin Laden. Ressam spent seven months in a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan and is believed to have had ties to both bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Authorities said Ressam could point investigators to other al Qaeda leaders suspected of having roles or knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, including a one-time mentor, Haydar Abu Doha, a London-based Algerian indicted in August as part of the millennium conspiracy. Mr. Abu Doha, 36, is in custody in London, awaiting extradition to the United States to face charges in the airport plot.

U.S. officials have declined to comment on what role, if any, Ressam has taken in the investigation, although his sentencing scheduled for Sept. 20 was postponed last month until February. Facing 130 years in prison, Ressam has sought to cooperate with authorities to reduce the sentence and already has testified against other suspects in the airport scheme.

In court testimony, Ressam named Mr. Abu Doha as one of his contacts in the Los Angeles scheme, saying he received "instructions" from Mr. Abu Doha while preparing the foiled attack.

He also testified against Mokhtar Haouari, 32, another Algerian, who also was convicted and faces up to 50 years in prison for supplying fake identification and $3,000 to Ressam to buy bomb-making chemicals. He is to be sentenced Oct. 17.

The millennium plot was derailed when Ressam was arrested in December 1999 while trying to enter the United States from Canada with explosives in his car.

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