- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui testified today that he and would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid were supposed to hijack a fifth airplane on Sept. 11, 2001, and fly it into the White House.

Moussaoui’s testimony on his own behalf stunned the courtroom. His account was in stark contrast to his previous statements in which he said the White House attack was to come later if the United States refused to release a radical Egyptian sheik imprisoned on earlier terrorist convictions.

On Dec. 22, 2001, Reid was subdued by passengers when he attempted to detonate a bomb in his shoe aboard American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. There were 197 people on board. The plane was diverted to Boston, where it landed safely.

Moussaoui told the court he knew the World Trade Center attack was coming and that he lied to investigators when arrested in August 2001 because he wanted it to happen.

“You lied because you wanted to conceal that you were a member of al Qaeda?” prosecutor Rob Spencer asked.

“That’s correct,” Moussaoui said.

Spencer: “You lied so the plan could go forward?”

Moussaoui: “That’s correct.”

The exchange was key to the government’s case that the attacks might have been averted if Moussaoui had been more cooperative following his arrest.

Moussaoui told the court he knew the attacks were coming some time after August 2001 and bought a radio so he could hear them unfold.

Specifically, he said he knew the World Trade Center was going to be attacked, but asserted he was not part of that plot and didn’t know the details.

Nineteen men pulled off the Sept. 11 attacks on New York in Washington in the worst act of terrorism ever on U.S. soil.

“I had knowledge that the Twin Towers would be hit,” Moussaoui said. “I didn’t know the details of this.”

Asked by his lawyer why he signed his guilty plea in April as “the 20th hijacker,” Moussaoui replied: “Because everybody used to refer to me as the 20th hijacker and it was a bit of fun.”

Before Moussaoui took the stand, his lawyers made a last attempt to stop him from testifying, but failed. Defense attorney Gerald Zerkin argued that his client would not be a competent witness because he has contempt for the court, only recognizes Islamic law and therefore “the affirmation he undertakes would be meaningless.”

Moussaoui at first denied he was to have been a fifth hijack pilot Sept. 11 but under cross examination spoke of the plan that would have him attack the White House. He said Reid was the only person he knew for sure would have been on that mission, but others were discussed.

The 19 terrorists on Sept. 11 hijacked and crashed four airliners, killing nearly 3,000 people in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the planes. The intended target of the plane that crashed into a Pennsylvania field remains unknown.

Moussaoui said he talked with an al Qaeda official in 1999 about why a 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center failed to bring the towers down. He said “was asked in the same period for the first time if I want to be a suicide pilot and I declined.”

Just before Moussaoui took the stand, the court heard testimony that two months before the attacks that a CIA deputy chief waited in vain for permission to tell the FBI about a “very high interest” al Qaeda operative who became one of the hijackers.

The official, a senior figure in the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, said he sought authorization on July 13, 2001, to send information to the FBI but got no response for 10 days, then asked again.

As it turned out, the information on Khalid al-Mihdhar did not reach the FBI until late August. At the time, CIA officers needed permission from a special unit before passing certain intelligence on to the FBI.

The official was identified only as John. His written testimony was read into the record.

“John’s” testimony was part of the defense’s case that federal authorities missed multiple opportunities to catch hijackers and perhaps thwart the 9/11 plot.

His testimony included an e-mail sent by FBI supervisor Michael Maltbie discussing Moussaoui but playing down his terrorist connections. Maltbie’s e-mail said “there’s no indication that (Moussaoui) had plans for any nefarious activity.”

He sent that e-mail to the CIA even after receiving a lengthy memo from the FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui and suspected him of being a terrorist with plans to hijack aircraft.

Prosecutors argue that Moussaoui, a French citizen, thwarted a prime opportunity to track down the 9/11 hijackers and possibly unravel the plot when he was arrested in August 2001 on immigration violations and lied to the FBI about his al Qaeda membership and plans to hijack a plane.

Had Moussaoui confessed, the FBI could have pursued leads that would have led them to most of the hijackers, government witnesses have testified.

To win the death penalty, prosecutors must first prove that Moussaoui’s actions - specifically, his lies - were directly responsible for at least one death on Sept. 11.

If they fail, Moussaoui would get life in prison.

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