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Moussaoui could have led to 9/11 attackers: FBI

FBI's Aaron Zebley said a major investigation would have been launched if Moussaoui had told about the plot.

india Updated: Mar 24, 2006 15:16 IST

If Zacarias Moussaoui had told authorities in August 2001 a hijacking plot was brewing in the United States, the FBI could have found records leading them to 11 of the September 11 attackers, a former FBI official said.

Aaron Zebley, a former FBI agent who now works as a federal prosecutor, testified in Moussaoui's sentencing trial that a major investigation would have been launched if Moussaoui had told about the plot when he was arrested in August 2001.

Zebley was the final witness for the US government's only case in connection with the September 11 attacks.

The prosecution rested its case after the former agent's testimony.

Moussaoui, who has pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, denied involvement in the September 11 hijackings but said on Thursday, he was to take part in a second wave of attacks on the White House.

The trial is to decide if he will be executed for his crimes.

After the judge and jury left the courtroom for a break before the defence began its case, Moussaoui -- who has little contact with his lawyers whom he has tried to fire -- yelled: "I will testify whether you want it or not. I will testify."

Zebley gave a detailed explanation of how the FBI could have gotten names of 11 of the 19 hijackers by searching wire transfer and phone calling-card records and by canvassing flight schools.

"You've got 11 different names. We could have set about finding them, of course, shared information with the intelligence community and ... Federal law enforcement," said Zebley, adding the FBI would have specifically warned the Federal Aviation Administration and the Secret Service.

Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyer, Edward MacMahon, disagreed that a major investigation would have been launched, saying other warnings had been ignored by the FBI.

He said the FBI agent who had arrested Moussaoui on August 16, 2001, had sent 70 messages to headquarters warning he thought Moussaoui was a terrorist, but no one listened.

"The FBI needs a confession from a ... Terrorist to start an investigation," MacMahon said heatedly, sparking an objection from the prosecution and leading the judge to urge attorneys on both sides to "take a deep breath."

Later, the defence showed evidence the FBI had information in August 2001 that two hijackers -- Khalid al Mihdhar and Nawaf al Hazmi -- were associated with Osama bin Laden, were believed to be terrorists and could be in the United States.

Despite having the information, and the fact Mihdhar and Hazmi used their real names while in the United States for months, the FBI did not find them.

Separately, a Transportation Security Administration lawyer, Carla Martin, who improperly contacted aviation witnesses who were scheduled to testify, was subpoenaed to appear on Monday at a hearing about her conduct, defence sources said.

Martin's actions delayed the trial last week after the judge initially threw out that element of the government's case. Testimony resumed after Judge Leonie Brinkema agreed to allow the government to bring forward new "untainted" witnesses and evidence.

Prosecutors are trying to prove that if Moussaoui, who was arrested in August 2001 after raising suspicions at a flight school, had not lied to the FBI the attacks might have been thwarted by investigative work by the FBI and heightened security efforts by the FAA.

When he pleaded guilty last year, Moussaoui signed a statement of facts that said he knew of Al-Qaeda's plans to fly airplanes into buildings in the United States.

Zebley's testimony came a day after a senior FAA official said stricter security could have been put in place before September 11 if officials had known of a potential plot to hijack airliners using small knives.