Monday, March 27, 2006

Moussaoui Says He Was Part of Plot to Attack White House - New York Times

Moussaoui Says He Was Part of Plot to Attack White House - New York Times

Moussaoui Says He Was Part of Plot to Attack White House

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By DAVID STOUT
Published: March 27, 2006

ALEXANDRIA, Va., March 27 — Zacarias Moussaoui testified in Federal District Court here today that he knew of Al Qaeda's plans to fly jetliners into the World Trade Center and that he was to have piloted an airliner into the White House on Sept. 11, 2001.
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Neil Lewis on the Moussaoui Trial
Related Text: Case History (U.S. v. Moussaoui)

Taking the stand before the jury that will determine whether he is put to death or spends the rest of his life in prison, Mr. Moussaoui related in calm, measured language that he was to have been accompanied on his death-dive into the White House by Richard C. Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, among others.

But when asked by his lawyer, Gerald T. Zerkin, about what role he had in planning the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, Mr. Moussaoui said, "It's difficult to say for sure what exactly my input was."

And Mr. Moussaoui disputed the suggestion by the chief federal prosecutor, Robert G. Spencer, that he was "a big shot in Al Qaeda," as Mr. Spencer put it in his cross-examination.

"Intermediate," Mr. Moussaoui described himself.

Intelligence officials have long thought that Mr. Moussaoui was in some way going to be involved in an aerial attack, but have never had a clear sense of exactly what his role was to be.

Captured Al Qaeda detainees, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Omar, also known as Ramsi Binalshibh, have portrayed Mr. Moussaoui as a relatively minor figure and said that while there were early discussions of a broader attack, the final plan for Sept. 11 was scaled back to involve only the four planes.

Mr. Moussaoui, whose previous courtroom behavior has sometimes consisted of belligerent ravings, was calm in the early going today. But though he was unemotional, the question of "what might have been" arose almost inevitably from his appearance.

He readily admitted that he lied to investigators after his arrest in Minnesota on immigration charges a few weeks before the attacks because he did not want to plot to be uncovered. And asked by Mr. Spencer whether he eagerly awaited the attacks, he replied, "Yes, you can say that."

Mr. Moussaoui matter-of-factly admitted knowing 17 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, having become acquainted with most of them in Afghanistan, where he said traveled often to confer with Al Qaeda's leaders.

He said, too, that after his arrest he hoped to get out of jail because, as Mr. Spencer put it, he was "in a rush" to get back to his flight-simulator training so that he could eventually fly a big airplane into a target.

"To kill Americans?" Mr. Spencer prodded.

"That's correct," Mr. Moussaoui said, an answer he uttered repeatedly in court as he was asked about keeping secret that he received money from terrorists in Germany and that he deliberately misled F.B.I. agents.

Lawyers for Mr. Moussaoui are trying to show that bungling by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies, not their client's deception and secrecy, allowed the Sept. 11 plot to go undetected.

And federal prosecutors are trying to show that, his denials notwithstanding, Mr. Moussaoui knew enough that the plot might very well have been thwarted if only he had come clean in the weeks between his arrest and the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

While there was no way to gauge the effect of his testimony on the jurors, Mr. Moussaoui did in fact seem to confirm much of what the government has been saying about him. He concluded his testimony this afternoon.

Under questioning from his own lawyer, he said he knew roughly when the attacks were to be carried out. "I knew it would happen after August," he said. On the morning of Sept. 11, he recalled watching television to see "the blue sky and the World Trade Center in flames."

His testimony today appeared to provide the first suggestion of a link between Mr. Moussaoui and Mr. Reid in the Sept. 11 plot. Mr. Reid was arrested on Dec. 22, 2001, after he attempted to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes while on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami, and is now serving life in prison.

Mr. Moussaoui said he had declined an early invitation from Al Qaeda to become a suicide pilot but changed his mind and eventually told Osama bin Laden that he was willing.

Asked whether he was to have been the fifth hijacker on the jet that crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania, Mr. Moussaoui told his lawyer, "No, I was not."

The three other jets hijacked on Sept. 11 were each seized by crews of five hijackers, while the one that went down in Pennsylvania was taken over by only four hijackers, who faced a rebellion by the doomed passengers.

"I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House," Mr. Moussaoui said. He added that "one definite member" of his hijacking crew was to have been Mr. Reid.

Investigators have long speculated that the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania had been headed for the White House.

The defendant, who is 37 and spoke in a soft, French-accented voice, said that while he knew that the World Trade Center towers would be a target, he did not know more specifics about the Sept. 11 plot. Asked by his lawyer whether he knew Mohammed Atta, the pilot of the first plane to strike the Twin Towers, Mr. Moussaoui replied, "Yes, indeed."

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