Suspect in Sept. 11 attacks seen as symbol of missed clues

Monday, June 3, 2002

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Zacarias Moussaoui seems to grow in importance as he sits in jail, filing court motions that are kept secret by a judge's order.

The only man charged as a Sept. 11 conspirator has become a symbol of the government's failure to piece together clues to the attacks.

The 34-year-old French citizen already was a top priority for prosecutors and for victims of Sept. 11 and their families: the one person in custody who, if convicted, would be held accountable for the attacks.

But public interest in Moussaoui, who wants to fire his court-appointed lawyers and represent himself, only grew after the FBI counsel in the bureau's Minnesota field office wrote a scathing May 21 letter alleging that headquarters officials thwarted local efforts to search Moussaoui's computer in the weeks before the terrorist attacks.

Identified as threat

"The Minneapolis agents who responded to the call about Moussaoui's flight training identified him as a terrorist threat from a very early point," Coleen Rowley wrote FBI Director Robert Mueller.

Stephen Push, treasurer of Families of September 11, a nonprofit victims group, said Rowley's letter makes it even more important to "to find out what the evidence is."

"I'm sure the evidence will shed light in terms of what the government should have known and acted upon prior to September 11," he said.

Mueller, in announcing a major FBI reorganization, acknowledged last week that agents could have been on the trail of the hijackers if they had pieced together several clues: Moussaoui's desire to learn to fly big jets, and at least two other memos about Middle Easterners taking flight training.

While Moussaoui's activities generated turmoil within the FBI, they also have created havoc in federal court in Alexandria.

In April, Moussaoui delivered a rambling, 50-minute courtroom speech in which he said he prayed for destruction of America and Israel, and accused the judge, prosecutors and his own lawyers of conspiring to execute him.

Psychiatric evaluation

At least initially, he refused to cooperate with a court-appointed psychiatrist who was appointed to determine Moussaoui's competency to fire his lawyers.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said Moussaoui may need to go to a federal prison psychiatric facility for a 90-day evaluation, which could delay jury selection now set for late September.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond Patterson, submitted a report but Brinkema has not made it public.

For now, Moussaoui has dual lawyers. The court-appointed team remains on the case, while Moussaoui files his own motions from jail, which Brinkema places under seal.

Moussaoui's mother has hired a San Diego lawyer to dissuade the defendant from representing himself. "It's a one-way ticket to the death chamber," attorney Randall Hamud said.

What does all this confusion mean?

"I think he is being manipulative," Push said. "I think he wants to use the trial as a political platform. I don't believe he wants to save his life. He wants to die a martyr. He wants to make speeches in an international platform and then be put to do death and have coconspirators view him as a martyr."

One of the court-appointed lawyers, Edward MacMahon, strongly disagreed.

"Moussaoui's stated intention, even in terms of representing himself, was to win the case and be acquitted," he said. "If Moussaoui wanted to become a martyr, he could plead guilty.

"My understanding of what he was saying was he wanted to be in control of how his case was defended. He certainly didn't say he was guilty.

"He was intent on proving his innocence in his own way."

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