US says Moussaoui's lies led to 9/11

Defense contends he was isolated by Al Qaeda hijackers

By Michael J. Sniffen
Associated Press / March 7, 2006
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ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Opening its argument for executing Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, the government said yesterday that he ''lied so that murders could follow" on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the defense portrayed Moussaoui as a buffoon isolated even by Al Qaeda and urged jurors to deny him the martyrdom of a death sentence.

In a heavily guarded courthouse just miles from the Pentagon, where some of the 2,972 victims of Sept. 11 died, prosecutor Rob Spencer opened his case by telling the jury that ''even though he was in jail on Sept. 11, he did his part as a loyal Al Qaeda soldier."

''Had he not lied to agents in 2001, the US government would have stopped those deaths, or at least some of them," Spencer asserted.

Court-appointed defense attorney Edward MacMahon scoffed at that idea. He termed Moussaoui's dreams of being a terrorist ''sound and fury signifying nothing."

Considered a headache and even called ''cuckoo in the head" by one Al Qaeda leader, Moussaoui ''was intentionally isolated from the real hijackers in the United States," MacMahon contended. ''Nothing Moussaoui did or said -- even a lie -- caused anyone to die that day."

Now Moussaoui yearns for martyrdom, MacMahon asserted. ''The only way he can appear as a smiling face on an Al Qaeda recruiting poster is by your verdict," MacMahon told jurors. ''Please don't make him a hero. He doesn't deserve it."

The 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, who faces either execution or life in prison without release, stroked his beard and intently studied the faces of jurors and the audience during opening statements.

Empaneled hours earlier, 10 men and seven women listened from the jury box. Across the hall, watching on closed circuit TV, Moussaoui's mother, Aicha, wept quietly when he entered court. One floor above, families of the Sept. 11 victims also watched on TV.

Moussaoui remained quiet during the proceedings, but as he left for a recess he told the lawyers, ''All your stories, all your American creations have nothing to do with me."

Spencer said Moussaoui, the only man charged in this country in the Sept. 11 plot, should be held responsible for not stopping it after the FBI arrested him Aug. 16, 2001, while he was training in Eagan, Minn., to fly jetliners.

Moussaoui, Spencer said, was such an inexperienced pilot that the FBI suspected he might be a terrorist, but Moussaoui told them he was a tourist pursing a dream. That lie made him responsible for the deaths ''as surely as if he had been at the controls of one of the planes" that Al Qaeda hijacked and flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, the prosecutor said.

If Moussaoui had told the FBI the same plot details he described last April when he pleaded guilty to six conspiracy counts, that would have been ''all the government needed to know to stop 9/11," Spencer said.

Moussaoui says he conspired with Al Qaeda to fly planes into buildings, but he wasn't part of the Sept. 11 planning. Instead, he says, he was training instead to fly into the White House as part of a possible later attack.

If Moussaoui had come clean in 2001, Spencer said, the FBI would have been able to use his records to locate 11 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, including all four pilots. He also said the government would have keep those conspirators off airplanes and would have altered airport screeners to confiscate small knives and boxcutters.

MacMahon argued that Moussaoui knew less about the Sept. 11 plot than the government did. The inept government handling of the intelligence it had, he said, shows it would never have mounted the flawless probe Spencer described.

''What the government wants you to believe is only a dream," he said.

MacMahon said the government was told in 1995 that Al Qaeda terrorists in the Philippines who had participated in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center were discussing hijacking a commercial jet and flying it into CIA headquarters, but they never changed their aviation security to prevent that.

He pointed out that the government knew two of the hijackers were in the United States for months before Sept. 11 and never put them on a no-fly list.

''Nothing they were told by some Muslim loner in Minnesota would have changed that" response by the government, MacMahon said.

He said the Sept. 11 hijackers traveled in teams and trained together, but Moussaoui traveled alone, didn't train with them, and was never in the presence of a real hijacker.

MacMahon played videotapes of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft describing how the FBI and CIA didn't share information before the attacks, and of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying any way to prevent Sept. 11 would have had to have been in place years earlier.

The 17 jurors included a high school math teacher who has traveled widely in the Middle East, a Navy veteran of the first Gulf War, and an Iranian-born Sunni Muslim woman.

The judge will later designate five as alternates.

The final group included only two of 21 prospective jurors who had some connection to the Sept. 11 attacks or victims.