Court: Moussaoui May Question Combatants

Terrorism suspect Zacarias Moussaoui (search) may submit written questions to people held in U.S. custody as enemy combatants to bolster his argument that he wasn't involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

The panel for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld a lower court's ruling that granted access without permitting face-to-face interviews, as Moussaoui had sought.

In its ruling, heavily censored for national security, the appeals court noted that statements by some of the unidentified combatants could help Moussaoui's defense.

The appeals panel ordered lawyers for the government and Moussaoui to work with the trial judge to find a compromise so that he can have access to the witnesses.

Click here to read the 4th Circuit Court's opinion (Findlaw pdf).

Moussaoui, arrested shortly before the attacks against New York and Washington, was charged in December 2001 with participating in a broad Al Qaeda (search ) conspiracy to commit terror and hijack airplanes.

The suspects he wants to question are in U.S. military custody and include some of the most notorious Al Qaeda members captured to date.

Remarks by one combatant, identified in the court's ruling only as "Witness A," would undermine the prosecution theory that Moussaoui was to pilot a fifth plane into the White House on Sept. 11, the court said. This witness' statement to interrogators "is consistent with Moussaoui's claim that he was to be part of a post-September 11 operation," the court said.

The appeals court ruled that the burdens of producing the combatants for face-to-face interviews with Moussaoui were substantial, but Moussaoui's interest in obtaining information from them was "integral to our adversarial criminal justice system."

Frank Dunham Jr., the federal public defender representing Moussaoui, declined to comment on the ruling.

Attorney General John Ashcroft (search ) called the ruling a victory for the government, saying it "once again affirms our belief that the government can provide Zacarias Moussaoui with a fair trial while still protecting national security interests."