- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

U.S. government agents knew in August 2001 that Zacarias Moussaoui was an acolyte of Osama bin Laden who had traveled to Afghanistan but still failed to aggressively investigate, Moussaoui’s defense lawyers said in a closed hearing last month.

Moussaoui’s lawyers disclosed several details in the Jan. 5 hearing that go beyond and sometimes contradict what was disclosed in the September 11 commission report, the government’s most exhaustive study of the missed opportunities to foil the September 11 attacks.

The government’s knowledge of Moussaoui and his terrorist connections will be a key issue at his March 6 death-penalty trial in federal court in Alexandria.

Moussaoui pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al Qaeda to fly aircraft into U.S. targets. But Moussaoui claims he had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks and instead was training for part of an aborted second wave of attacks.

To obtain the death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui was directly involved in the September 11 attacks. They plan to do so by arguing that the government could have thwarted the attacks if Moussaoui had not lied to FBI agents after his August 2001 arrest on immigration violations. The defense contends that the government knew more about the terrorists’ plans than Moussaoui and still was unable to prevent the attacks.

Transcripts of the Jan. 5 pretrial hearing were released late Friday, and defense lawyers offered several new nuggets of information to bolster their argument that the government’s failure to act swiftly after Moussaoui’s arrest was its own fault.

For instance, defense lawyer Edward MacMahon said government correspondence shows “the actual (redacted) information that essentially tells them in August that Moussaoui is a bin Ladenite who traveled to Afghanistan. That wasn’t acted on.”

Mr. MacMahon’s statement that the government knew before September 11 that Moussaoui had traveled to bin Laden’s home base of Afghanistan differs from the report of the September 11 commission.

The authors of that report write that it was not until Sept. 13, 2001, that British intelligence told the United States that Moussaoui had traveled to Afghanistan to attend an al Qaeda camp.

“Had this information been available in late August 2001, the Moussaoui case would almost certainly have received intense, high-level attention,” according to the September 11 commission’s report.

Mr. MacMahon also said during the hearing that the government explicitly barred one FBI agent in the summer of 2001 from interviewing Moussaoui or any member of Moussaoui’s family for fear that such contact would alert al Qaeda to the government’s investigation of two other al Qaeda terrorists.

Prosecutors did not respond to the defense statements during the hearing.


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