Moussaoui Trial Will Examine If 9/11 Could Have Been Prevented

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, while the world watched the horror of jetliners smashing into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, Zacarias Moussaoui sat in a jail cell -- possibly withholding information that could have averted the attacks.

Moussaoui -- the only person charged in the United States for having direct knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks -- goes before a jury today in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va., to determine whether he knowingly lied or covered up knowledge of the attacks. If he is found guilty, the jury will then decide if he should be executed or face life in prison

Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001 and held on immigration violations. A self-professed al Qaeda member, Moussaoui pleaded guilty to six counts of conspiracy in April 2005, for knowing about al Qaeda's Sept. 11 plans and agreeing to participate in the attacks.

The government's prosecution will focus on whether the attacks could have been prevented had Moussaoui told FBI agents about al Qaeda's plans.

Previously, Moussaoui has said he was not part of the 9/11 plot but that he was tasked to take part in a second wave of attacks destined to hit the White House. At his plea hearing in April 2005, Moussaoui said, "I was being trained on the 747-400 to eventually use this plane ... to strike the White House, but this conspiracy was different conspiracy than 9/11."

Focus on the Victims

The trial is expected to last up to three months and will recall many of the tragic stories of 9/11, with more than 150 witnesses expected to testify.

Justice Department prosecutors handling the case intend to identify in photographs the nearly 3,000 victims killed during the attacks and have said in court filings that they will call 45 victims to testify against Moussaoui.

The court in Virginia has set up a closed-circuit TV feed for the victims' families to view the trial in Alexandria and at federal courthouses in Boston; Long Island, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; Manhattan; and Philadelphia. About 530 family members have signed up to attend the trial at these locations.

The government will also call numerous expert witnesses, FBI counterterrorism officials and people who Moussaoui knew in the United States -- including his former roommate, Hussein Al Attas, who has agreed to testify against Moussaoui. Al Attas pleaded guilty in 2002 to lying to FBI agents about his time with Moussaoui. He was arrested with Moussaoui in Minnesota.

The defense intends to show how a series of missed opportunities by the government failed to prevent the attacks, and that Moussaoui's lies did not keep the government from linking events that may have averted the plot.

9/11 Intelligence Errors

In the summer of 2001, U.S intelligence agencies began to receive and collect various threat reports about planned al Qaeda attacks.

President Bush was briefed on Aug. 6, 2001, with a report called "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the U.S." The report noted the CIA and FBI were investigating claims that bin Laden supporters were in the U.S. planning attacks with explosives.

Numerous investigations by congressional committees and the 9/11 Commission have examined the troubled relationship between the FBI and the CIA and how they missed opportunities to detect and potentially prevent the attacks.

The FBI first learned about Moussaoui when flight instructors from the Pan Am Flight Academy in Minnesota called the local FBI field office. Moussaoui arrived in the United States with $35,000 for his training in flight schools and lived for a time in Oklahoma before traveling to Minnesota.

Moussaoui had only accrued limited flight training, yet he enrolled at the Pan Am Academy wanting to fly 747 jumbo jets.

Shortly after he started the training, a Pan Am employee called an FBI agent he knew to alert him about Moussaoui. The FBI began to look into Moussaoui's activities and arrested him because of a visa violation.

CIA Director George Tenet was briefed on Moussaoui's arrest on Aug. 23, 2001. "Tenet was ... told that Moussaoui wanted to learn to fly a 747, paid for his training in cash, was interested to learn the doors do not open in flight, and wanted to fly a simulated flight from London to New York," according to the 9/11 report.

The next day the CIA sent an alert to the FBI about the case, but the FBI waited until Sept. 4 to send a teletype to the intelligence community, noting that Moussaoui was in custody, but the memo did not describe any particular threat.

Edward MacMahon, one of Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers, has said that the government did not adequately act on information available to federal investigators. "We believe that once they see ... the actual information that essentially tells them in August that Moussaoui's a 'bin Ladenite' who traveled to Afghanistan. That wasn't acted on," MacMahon said at a court hearing.

Moussaoui's Odd Behavior

Besides showing how the government erred in investigating Moussaoui's terrorism connections, the defense has said it will call witnesses who will show that Moussaoui's troubled childhood led him to radical Islam. The defense will say that Moussaoui, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, had difficulty integrating into French society.

According to court filings, the defense also plans to call witnesses who will say Moussaoui "suffers from a major thought disorder, most likely schizophrenia."

Moussaoui's has denounced his lawyers, calling them "bloodsuckers" and members of the KKK. In the years leading up to the trial, Moussaoui often filed his own court documents in which he would berate the judge and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Evidence Could Be Embarrassing to Government

Numerous aspects of the case have remained sealed, under Judge Leonie Brinkema's orders. Many court filings have remained classified because they involve intelligence information about terrorist threats and reports about senior al Qaeda detainees.

Much of the evidence in the case could prove embarrassing for the government by pointing to evidence that U.S. intelligence had numerous warnings that a terrorist attack was in the works. The trial could also reveal new details about the plot and how the FBI mishandled Moussaoui's arrest.

Prosecutors may present some classified information to the jury, which will not be made public.

George Washington Law professor Jonathan Turley expressed concern about the classified material. "Throughout this case, the government has denied evidence for purely tactical reasons under the guise of national security," Turley said.

Brinkema has said that much of the information should be declassified. "Most of this information, at this point, if it hasn't been declassified, ought to be, since it's been out in the public many ways," Brinkema said.