Published March 21, 2006
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The headquarters supervisor of the FBI's international terrorism section testified Tuesday that he spent about 20 seconds discussing the case of Zacarias Moussaoui before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Michael Rollince testified at Moussaoui's death penalty trial that he had two hallway conversations with a subordinate, David Frasca, that dealt primarily with a dispute over whether to get a warrant to search Moussaoui's computer and notebook.
Rollince said he was warned by Frasca that the issue could not be resolved at the unit level and that a call might be coming from the FBI's Minneapolis field office for Rollince.
"On any given day there were dozens" of debates at his level among the field offices, headquarters and the Justice Department about whether they had enough information to get a search warrant, he said.
His testimony followed statements in court Monday by Harry Samit, the FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui in Minnesota, that FBI superiors ignored his repeated warnings that Moussaoui might be a terrorist interested in hijacking an airliner. The bureau's failures thwarted an opportunity to prevent the attacks, he said.
Rollince took the stand after the jury saw videotaped testimony that Moussaoui tried to enlist an Oklahoma roommate, Hussein al-Attas, in holy war even as he pressed ahead with his own terrorist training.
In the deposition, presented by prosecutors to build their case that Moussaoui was a serious terrorist threat, al-Attas said Moussaoui talked about holy war every day when they roomed together, taught him martial arts and proposed sending him to Pakistan to learn the Islamic militant justification for jihad.
"Your obligation, like any other Muslim, is to be ready for jihad," he quoted Moussaoui as telling him. Al-Attas also said Moussaoui told him: "This is the only way for me to get to paradise."
Both were arrested in Minnesota on Aug. 16, 2001, after Moussaoui's efforts to obtain flight training aroused suspicion. Unlike Moussaoui, al-Attas made bail and was re-arrested on Sept. 11, 2001, after the attacks.
Al-Attas testified he believed that Moussaoui wanted him to fight holy war in Chechnya, but that Moussaoui never asked him outright.
Al-Attas is a Saudi-born Yemeni citizen who was attending the University of Oklahoma when he roomed with Moussaoui for more than a month in the summer of 2001. Moussaoui was taking flight training in Norman, Okla.
When federal agents arrested Moussaoui in Minnesota in August 2001, where he wanted to advance his training by learning to fly a commercial airliner, al-Attas was with him. Al-Attas spent more than a year in jail for making false statements to 9/11 investigators.
He was given immunity for his testimony against Moussaoui.
Al-Attas described Moussaoui as a rude man whose presence at the mosque in Norman irritated other Muslims. Moussaoui would question the mosque's imam about the proper way to pray and lectured others at the mosque, telling them they should leave the United States.
He said in his deposition, taken in 2004, that Moussaoui told him it was easy to fly a big airplane, except for landing and bad weather. Al-Attas also said he ripped up application papers for a Pakistani visa when he was arrested on immigration charges, because he was scared.
On Monday, Samit testified that his belief that Moussaoui was a radical Islamic extremist bent on terrorism was based in part on al-Attas' statements.
Samit said he worked obsessively after arresting Moussaoui on Aug. 16, 2001, to convince FBI headquarters that Moussaoui warranted a full-scale investigation and that a search warrant should be obtained for his belongings.
The agent obtained a search warrant only after the Sept. 11 attacks, and attributed the FBI's failure to launch a timely investigation to "criminal negligence" and careerism by certain agents in FBI headquarters.
Moussaoui is the only person charged in this country in the Sept. 11 attacks.
He has already pleaded guilty to conspiring with Al Qaeda to hijack aircraft and commit other crimes. But he denies a specific role in 9/11, saying his training was for a future attack. His sentencing trial will determine his punishment: death or life in prison.
The FBI's actions between Moussaoui's arrest and Sept. 11 are crucial to the trial because prosecutors allege that Moussaoui's lies to Samit prevented the FBI from thwarting or at least minimizing the Sept. 11 attacks. Prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui's actions caused the death of at least one person on 9/11 to obtain a death penalty.
The defense argues that nothing Moussaoui said after his arrest would have made any difference to the FBI because its bureaucratic intransigence rendered it incapable of reacting swiftly to Moussaoui's arrest under any circumstances.