March 20, 2006
FBI Agent: Warnings about Moussaoui Unheeded
By Deborah Charles
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) - An FBI agent testified in the sentencing trial of September 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui on Monday that agency superiors repeatedly blocked his efforts to warn of a possible terror attack.
Harry Samit, the FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui three weeks before the deadly airliner hijackings that killed 3,000 people, said he tried to tell his superiors that he thought a hijacking plan might be in the works.
"You tried to move heaven and earth to get a search warrant to search this man's belongings. You were obstructed," defense attorney Edward MacMahon said as the trial resumed after a week's delay over improper witness coaching.
"From a particular individual in the (FBI's) Radical Fundamentalist Unit, yes sir, I was obstructed," Samit said.
Moussaoui has already pleaded guilty to six charges of conspiracy. The trial -- the only one for anyone charged in connection with the September 11 attacks -- will determine if he is sentenced to death.
Moussaoui, an admitted al Qaeda member who regularly yells "God curse America!" when the jury and judge leave the courtroom, was arrested on August 16, 2001, after raising suspicions at a flight school.
Samit said after questioning Moussaoui he knew the Frenchman of Moroccan descent had "radical Islamic fundamentalist beliefs" and thought he was part of a bigger plot to attack the United States. In an message to his superiors on August 18, 2001, Samit said he believed Moussaoui was "conspiring to commit a terrorist act."
Samit also warned that Moussaoui, who did not have a pilot's license, had been taking simulator lessons to learn the basics of flying a jumbo jet. Samit expressed his concerns that Moussaoui was plotting a possible hijacking.
WARNINGS GO UNHEEDED
"You thought you had a terrorist who was planning a terrorist attack. And you wanted everyone in the government to know," MacMahon asked Samit.
"Yes," he replied.
Although he sent numerous e-mails and formal requests to agents and to his superiors warning of a potential hijacking attack, Samit said he was unable to get authority to seek a warrant in order to search Moussaoui's belongings.
He even sought assistance from FBI agents in France and Britain and consulted with people in different agencies.
"I am so desperate to get into his computer, I'll take anything," he wrote in an e-mail to Catherine Kiser, an intelligence official, one day before the deadly attacks.
Her response was ominous: "You fought the good fight. God help us all if the next terrorist incident involves the same type of plane."
Samit also drafted a memo to the Federal Aviation Administration warning that Moussaoui might have been part of a plot to seize a jumbo jet but it was not clear "how far advanced were his plans to do so." Samit's bosses at FBI headquarters did not send the memo.
MacMahon quoted from a report in which Samit accused people at FBI headquarters of "criminal negligence" and said they were just trying to protect their own careers.
The trial resumed on Monday after a week's delay caused by the discovery that a Transportation Security Administration lawyer, Carla Martin, had improperly discussed the trial with aviation witnesses who were to testify for the defense and the prosecution.
After initially throwing out all aviation-related evidence and testimony, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema agreed to allow the government to bring forward new "untainted" witnesses and evidence, but limited the parameters for the questioning.