Zacarias Moussaoui pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to conspiring with the 19 terrorists who slammed hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people on September 11, 2001.
"It is correct, I want to plead guilty to the six charges in the indictment," Moussaoui told a judge who read the charges of conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, to commit aircraft piracy, to destroy aircraft, to use weapons of mass destruction, to murder U.S. employees and to destroy property.
But moments after entering the plea, the only man charged in U.S. federal court in connection with the September 11 attacks recoiled into his old form. Moussaoui began a 12-minute courtroom rant, during which he denied any direct involvement in the attacks and said that he had, in fact, been training for an entirely separate mission than the 19 hijackers' one.
Moussaoui said that he had gone to flight training school to prepare for an attack that involved flying a 747 into the White House unless U.S. officials negotiated with him to release suspected terrorist Omar Abdel Rahman, commonly known as "the blind sheik" or "Sheik Omar" from captivity in Afghanistan.
Moussaoui then criticized his court-appointed defense attorneys, who have said publicly they disagreed with his decision to enter a guilty plea.
Moussaoui told the court that he knew what he was doing and that he was angered by his lawyers repeatedly "going around with journalists saying 'Moussaoui's crazy, Moussaoui's crazy.' "
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who could be heard during the rant faintly murmuring the words "all right" into her microphone, finally interrupted Moussaoui and castigated the defense and prosecution teams for engaging in excessive leaks to the press about the case.
Moussaoui's guilty plea, regardless of the statements made afterward, signals a new stage in the more than three-year-old legal battle that has defined his case, which the Bush administration had hoped would serve as a symbol of how the federal court system could smoothly handle the prosecution of foreign-born terrorism suspects.
"The fact that Moussaoui participated in this terrorist conspiracy is no longer in doubt," said Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who held a press conference in Washington after Moussaoui made his pleas.
"Moussaoui and his co-conspirators were responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents on September 11," said Mr. Gonzales, who also noted the government would seek the death penalty.
While Moussaoui pleaded guilty, he entered into no quid-pro-quo plea agreement with the government. The stage is now set for a new round of hearings in which a jury will weigh the charges against Moussaoui and ultimately decide his sentence.
"I will fight for every inch not to get the death penalty," said Moussaoui, 36, who as a French citizen of Moroccan descent was in jail on immigration violations when the September 11 attacks occurred. Authorities had arrested him in August 2001 after employees at a Minneapolis flight school reported him for wanting to learn how to fly and steer without learning takeoff and landing techniques.
Legal experts said there were still questions yesterday about Moussaoui's mental competency and whether he fully understood the charges he pleaded guilty to. "It seems to me that he's denying the essential facts that the government has accused him of," said Douglas W. Kmiec, who has followed the Moussaoui case closely as a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University.
Alan Yamamoto, one of Moussaoui's court-appointed defense attorneys, hesitated when Judge Brinkema asked whether he believed that Moussaoui understood the ramifications of pleading guilty. "He has told me that he understands," Mr. Yamamoto said, adding that he and Moussaoui had "argued about" the issue.
"We've gone around in circles," Mr. Yamamoto said. "He appears to understand, your honor."
For her part, Judge Brinkema said she was "fully satisfied" that Moussaoui was "competent to enter these pleas."
"He understands the legal system better than some lawyers I've met," the judge said.
Yet Moussaoui still appeared frustrated with the course of yesterday's hearing. At one point he said the hearing was his "last chance" to speak before being taken back to prison and again "held in this cave in Alexandria."
As the hearing ended and U.S. marshals stood on both sides of the terrorist to usher him out of the courtroom, Moussaoui suddenly shouted: "Lord, God curse America!"