Published March 27, 2006
ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Al Qaeda conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui helped himself get one huge step closer toward getting the death penalty Monday when he testified that not only did he know about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks ahead of time but that he and shoe-bomber Richard Reid were supposed to hijack a fifth airplane and fly it into the White House.
The self-confessed Al Qaeda member also said he rejoiced and was delighted when nearly 3,000 people were killed and the World Trade Center was reduced to rubble after the attacks that day.
Moussaoui's three-hour long testimony in his death-penalty trial revealed stunning new details in the case, many of which were in stark contrast to his previous statements in which he said the White House attack was to come later if the United States refused to release a radical Egyptian sheik imprisoned on earlier terrorist convictions.
"I was supposed to pilot a plane into the White House," Moussaoui responded when defense lawyers asked him if he knew he was supposed to be a pilot in the Sept. 11 attacks when he was arrested on Aug. 16 of that year. "I only knew about the two planes of the World Trade Center in addition to my own," he added.
Moussaoui said he knew on Aug. 16, "one definite member of my crew was Richard Reid" and that other mission participants were discussed.
On Dec. 22, 2001, Reid was subdued by passengers when he attempted to detonate a bomb in his shoe aboard American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. There were 197 people on board. The plane was diverted to Boston, where it landed safely. Reid, also a self-proclaimed member of Al Qaeda who has pledged support to Usama bin Laden, pleaded guilty in October 2002 to trying to blow up Flight 63 and was sentenced to life in prison.
Moussaoui also said he interacted with bin Laden himself, "because I was special."
A FOX News producer who was in the courtroom said Moussaoui was very composed and articulate and spoke very deliberately while on the stand.
Moussaoui told the court he knew the World Trade Center attack was coming and that he lied to investigators when arrested in August 2001 "because I'm Al Qaeda ... because I wanted my mission to go ahead." He said he even bought a radio so he could hear the attacks unfold.
"You lied because you wanted to conceal that you were a member of Al Qaeda?" prosecutor Rob Spencer asked.
"That's correct," Moussaoui said.
Spencer: "You lied so the plan could go forward?"
Moussaoui: "That's correct."
The statement was key to the government's case that the attacks might have been averted if Moussaoui had been more cooperative following his arrest.
He earlier asserted he was not part of that specific plot and didn't know the details.
Moussaoui said he talked with an Al Qaeda official in 1999 about why a 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center failed to bring the towers down. He said "was asked in the same period for the first time if I want to be a suicide pilot and I declined."
He also said he was excluded from pre-hijacking operations because he had gotten in trouble with his Al Qaeda superiors on a 2000 trip to Malaysia when he asked them for money to take flight training. He said it was only after he was called back to Afghanistan and talked with bin Laden that he was approved again for the operation.
"My position was, like you say, under review."
But he also said he dreamed about flying a plane in an attack against the United States. When Moussaoui saw bin Laden and told him about the dream, the Al Qaeda ringleader apparently responded, "good." Moussaoui testified that he had a similar dream a few days later.
"Then I was asked if I wanted to be part of the operation and this time I said 'yes,' and so did Richard Reid," Moussaoui said.
In 2000, he said he and the Al Qaeda official discussed the methodology of the attack, either with a knife or without a weapon, and later talked about different scenarios, such as what if a fighter aircraft approached while he was flying a plane.
Nineteen men pulled off the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington in the worst act of terrorism ever on U.S. soil, leaving nearly 3,000 people dead in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and on the four planes that crashed.
He said he knew the World Trade Center was going to be attacked, but that he was not part of that plot and didn't know the details.
Asked by his lawyer why he signed his guilty plea in April as "the 20th hijacker," Moussaoui replied: "Because everybody used to refer to me as the 20th hijacker and it was a bit of fun."
Moussaoui also said he knew the other hijackers by name or face because when he was in Afghanistan, he was a greeter at a guest house and used to drive the men to the airport.
'I Am Not Concerned About This Death Penalty'
Before he took the stand, his lawyers made a last attempt to stop him from testifying, but failed. Defense attorney Gerald Zerkin argued that his client would not be a competent witness because he has contempt for the court, only recognizes Islamic law and therefore "the affirmation he undertakes would be meaningless."
Among other things, Moussaoui said he thought his defense team was trying to kill him, and that, "I am not concerned about this death penalty."
"I believe in destiny," he said, "God will take care of the rest."
Earlier, when asked by Zerkin if he was supposed to be one of the men who would pilot a plane on Sept. 11, Moussaoui said no, "I'm sorry, I don't know about the number of planes but I was not the fifth [pilot] hijacker."
About his guilty plea, he said: "I took a pen. I signed it."
But under cross examination, Moussaoui spoke of the plan that would have him attack the White House.
He said he talked with an Al Qaeda official in 1999 about why a 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center failed to bring the towers down. He said he "was asked in the same period for the first time if I want to be a suicide pilot and I declined."
Yet, he said he was taking flight training for a separate attack on the White House when he was arrested in August 2001 on immigration charges. He was vague on whether this attack was to have been after Sept. 11 or on it.
"I know it was something going on," he said in French-accented English. "We don't do single operation. We do multiple strikes."
He told the court it was "difficult to say" whether he was involved in the planning for Sept. 11.
When asked by the prosecution if he lied to FBI investigators about being in Al Qaeda, Moussaoui said he was not asked whether he belonged to a terrorist group. He referred to Al Qaeda as the "bin Laden group" and said he had never heard of "Al Qaeda" until Americans referred to it that way.
After the jury left the courtoom, Moussaoui yelled, "God curse you, Zerkin," referring to one of his defense lawyers.
CIA Deputy Offers More on Missed Clues
Just before Moussaoui took the stand, the court heard testimony that two months before the attacks, a CIA deputy chief waited in vain for permission to tell the FBI about a "very high interest" Al Qaeda operative who became one of the hijackers.
The official, a senior figure in the CIA's bin Laden unit, said he sought authorization on July 13, 2001, to send information to the FBI but got no response for 10 days, then asked again.
As it turned out, the information on Khalid al-Mihdhar did not reach the FBI until late August. At the time, CIA officers needed permission from a special unit before passing certain intelligence on to the FBI.
The official was identified only as "John." His written testimony was read into the record.
John's testimony was part of the defense's case that federal authorities missed multiple opportunities to catch hijackers and perhaps thwart the Sept. 11 plot.
His testimony included an e-mail sent by FBI supervisor Michael Maltbie discussing Moussaoui but playing down his terrorist connections. Maltbie's e-mail said "there's no indication that [Moussaoui] had plans for any nefarious activity."
He sent that e-mail to the CIA even after receiving a lengthy memo from the FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui and suspected him of being a terrorist with plans to hijack aircraft.
Former FBI agent Erik Rigler, the first defense witness, was questioned about a Justice Department report that he said criticized the CIA for keeping intelligence about two known Al Qaeda terrorist operatives in the United States from the FBI for more than a year.
While acknowledging the report did not link the pair specifically to a civil aviation plot, he said the report's thrust was about their preparations for what turned out to be the Sept. 11 attacks and their ability to elude federal agents.
"That's why they came here," he said. "They didn't come for Disney."
The two operatives were among the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11. The report said they had been placed on a watch list in Thailand in January 2000 but not on a U.S. list until August 2001.
Prosecutors argue that Moussaoui, a French citizen, thwarted a prime opportunity to track down the hijackers and possibly unravel the plot when he was arrested in August 2001 on immigration violations and lied to the FBI about his Al Qaeda membership and plans to hijack a plane.
Had Moussaoui confessed, the FBI could have pursued leads that would have led them to most of the hijackers, government witnesses have testified.
Sally Regenhard, whose firefighter son Christian died at the World Trade Center, said "at least there would have been a chance" to head off the attacks if Moussaoui had told investigators in August 2001 what she heard him admit in court Monday.
"I was convinced that this man was only a heartbeat away from taking the controls of a plane," she said.
FOX News' Carla Wendy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.