Moussaoui testimony stuns court

  • Article by: GREG GORDON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2006 - 10:45 AM

He said he was training to fly a fifth hijacked plane, targeting the White House. But the 9/11 mastermind has said Moussaoui was never considered to be one of the pilots.

ALEXANDRIA, VA. - Testifying over his lawyers' objections, Zacarias Moussaoui calmly told a stunned courtroom Monday that he had been training to be part of the Sept. 11 operation and knew Al-Qaida planned to crash two U.S. jetliners into the World Trade Center.

The confessed Al-Qaida conspirator's nearly three hours of riveting testimony, including his acknowledgment that he was prepared, "if necessary," to slit the throat of a pilot or flight attendant, could prove pivotal as a jury decides whether he should be executed.

Moussaoui said that when he was arrested in Minnesota in August 2001, he was training to fly a fifth hijacked plane into the White House with a crew that would have included Richard Reid, a man later convicted of attempting an in-flight shoe bombing. Moussaoui admitted that he lied to interrogators so as "not to compromise" the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history.

But Moussaoui's court-appointed defense lawyers revealed a sharply contrasting picture of the defendant, reading into the record the first public statements by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the admitted mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, since his capture in Pakistan three years ago.

In the declassified summary of his statements to U.S. interrogators, Sheikh Mohammed offered startling new details of the planning of the deadliest terror attack in U.S. history, describing a simple operation to "wake the American people up."

He said Moussaoui was never considered to be one of the Sept. 11 pilots and was being groomed for a follow-on attack on the West Coast that might have included flying a plane into San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge or the San Mateo Bridge. Sheikh Mohammed repeatedly expressed doubts about Moussaoui's reliability and said he tried to cut him out altogether on at least two occasions.

It was the most dramatic day of testimony in a three-week-old trial filled with tumult. Jurors, who scribbled notes as Moussaoui further implicated himself, now must sort out the conflicting portraits in determining whether he should be put to death for what he didn't tell interrogators while jailed in Minnesota.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said she expects the first phase of the trial -- to determine whether Moussaoui is eligible for the death penalty -- to go to the jury as early as Wednesday.

If the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan origin is found eligible, both sides will present evidence of aggravating and mitigating factors in a second phase to determine whether he is sentenced to death or life in prison without parole.

On the witness stand

Moussaoui was granted his request to testify even after defense lawyer Gerald Zerkin argued that he was incompetent to do so. Brinkema said she recognized Moussaoui's constitutional right to testify.

Moussaoui, in his green prison jump suit and white knit hat, sat hunched over in the witness chair with a phalanx of federal marshals a few feet away.

Stating his name as "Zacarias Moussaoui Ibn Omar al-Saharawi," he answered questions softly, but with precision.

During an awkward 30-minute direct examination, Zerkin asked Moussaoui why he signed his name as "20th hijacker" in pleading guilty last year.

"Why not?" Moussaoui replied in heavily accented English. "Everybody referred to me as the 20th hijacker. It was a bit of fun, that's all."

He then told Zerkin that he was not the 20th hijacker. But when asked if he was part of the Sept. 11 operation, he responded: "I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House."

Asked what he knew about the operation, he said, "I only knew about the two planes [hitting] the World Trade Center."

During cross-examination, chief prosecutor Robert Spencer asked him: "The reason you wanted to fly the plane into the White House is to kill Americans?"

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