Friday, March 31, 2006

At Sept. 11 Trial, Tale of Missteps and Management

The New York Times
At Sept. 11 Trial, Tale of Missteps and Management

WASHINGTON, March 30 — Three weeks of testimony and dozens of documents released in the sentencing of Zacarias Moussaoui have offered an eerie parallel view of two organizations, Al Qaeda and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and how they pursued their missions before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Al Qaeda, according to a newly revealed account from the chief plotter, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, took its time in choosing targets — attack the White House or perhaps a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania? Organizers sized up and selected operatives, teaching them how to apply for a visa and how to cut a throat, a skill they practiced on sheep and camels. Despite the mistakes of careless subordinates and an erratic boss, Osama bin Laden, Mr. Mohammed tried to keep the plot on course.

Mr. Mohammed, a Pakistani-born, American-trained engineer, "thought simplicity was the key to success," says the summary of his interrogation by the Central Intelligence Agency. It is all the more chilling for the banal managerial skills it ascribes to the man who devised the simultaneous air attacks.

If Mr. Mohammed's guiding principle was simplicity, the United States government relied on sprawling bureaucracies at feuding agencies to look for myriad potential threats. The C.I.A. had lots of information on two hijackers, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Midhar, but the F.B.I. did not know the men had settled in San Diego, where Mr. Mohammed had instructed them to "spend time visiting museums and amusement parks" so they could masquerade as tourists.

At the F.B.I., a few agents pursued clues that would later prove tantalizingly close to the mark, but they could not draw attention from top counterterrorism officials. A Minnesota F.B.I. agent, Harry M. Samit, warned in a memorandum that Mr. Moussaoui was a dangerous Islamic extremist whose study of how to fly a Boeing 747-400 seemed to be part of a sinister plot.

"As the details of this plan are not yet fully known, it cannot be determined if Moussaoui has sufficient knowledge of the 747-400 to attempt to execute the seizure of such an aircraft," Mr. Samit wrote on Aug. 31, 2001. He had already urged Washington to act quickly, because it was not clear "how far advanced Moussaoui's plan is or how many unidentified co-conspirators exist."

But to high-level officials, the oddball Moroccan-born Frenchman in Minneapolis was only one of scores of possible terrorists who might be worth checking out. An F.B.I. official in Washington edited crucial details out of Mr. Samit's memorandums seeking a search warrant for Mr. Moussaoui's possessions, and said that pressing for it could hurt an agent's career, Mr. Samit testified.

The picture of a large and lumbering bureaucracy trying to defend against a small and flexible enemy is striking, said Timothy J. Roemer, a member of the national Sept. 11 commission.

"It's like the elephant fighting the snake," said Mr. Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. "One of the impressions of Al Qaeda and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is their ability to change course and put new people into their plan and dynamically respond to the challenges day to day."

The United States government, he said, "is almost the opposite."

"We're slow to change," he said, "slow to adjust, and we're building a huge bureaucracy."

The court testimony, Mr. Roemer said, has reinforced his belief that "Moussaoui was an Al Qaeda mistake and a missed opportunity for the F.B.I."

The jury at Mr. Moussaoui's sentencing trial in federal court in Alexandria, Va., began deliberating on Wednesday about whether he qualifies for the death penalty for not telling American officials of the approaching terrorist attacks. If jurors decide he does qualify, they will then have to make a second decision as to whether he should be executed.

The outlines of the events on both sides in the weeks leading to the Sept. 11 attacks are well known. But the voluminous evidence presented at the trial have added details and color to the public history of the plotters and how American counterterrorism officers failed to stop them.

There are snippets of highly classified National Security Agency cables and glimpses of the C.I.A. inspector general's report on the agency's performance before the attacks, which remains secret. There are numerous new F.B.I. e-mail messages and memorandums that fill in the details of agents' suspicions and why they were not heeded.

But the 58-page "Substitution for the Testimony of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," a detailed account of what Mr. Mohammed has told investigators since his capture in Pakistan in 2003, and an attached two-page statement written by him, give the most direct view to date of the man who conceived and organized the attacks.

"I know that the materialistic Western mind cannot grasp the idea, and it is difficult for them to believe that the high officials in Al Qaeda do not know about operations carried out by its operatives, but this is how it works," Mr. Mohammed wrote in his statement to his interrogators. "We do not submit written reports to our higher ups. I conducted the September 11 operation by submitting only oral reports."

Mr. Mohammed comes across as a hands-on, midlevel manager who sometimes handled details, like perusing a San Diego telephone book he bought at a market in Karachi, Pakistan, for English-language schools and flight schools.

But he delegated what he could to others. He had Abu Turab al Jordani, a Qaeda veteran from Jordan, train the less sophisticated "muscle" hijackers, teaching them to use their knives on animals and how to storm a jetliner cabin. He allowed Mohammed Atta, appointed "emir" of the hijackers, to make final decisions on targets and on the date of the attack.

Mr. bin Laden repeatedly pressed Mr. Mohammed to move ahead with the hijacking plot, the document says. He pushed, for example, to strike on May 12, precisely seven months after the 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Ever the pragmatist, Mr. Mohammed put him off. In fact, Mr. Mohammed "noted that he disobeyed bin Laden on several occasions by taking operatives assigned to him by bin Laden and using them how he best saw fit."

One restriction on the plot was the small number of Qaeda devotees who had, or could get, visas to enter the United States. Mr. Mohammed used Mr. Midhar and Mr. Hazmi because they had visas — despite his doubts about their minimal English and lack of sophistication.

But he also considered Mr. Moussaoui less reliable because of time he had spent in the West. Mr. Mohammed "stated that Westerners have a different point of view because of their freedom," the summary says.

The sentencing trial made clear the frustration of the Minneapolis F.B.I. office in its repeated efforts to interest bureau headquarters in Mr. Moussaoui.

Gripping testimony came from Mr. Samit, who arrested Mr. Moussaoui on Aug. 16 and quickly became convinced that he was a terrorist who knew about an imminent hijacking plot. Mr. Samit said that he had sent about 70 warning messages about Mr. Moussaoui, but that they had produced no results.

The agent said he had been puzzled at the reluctance of Michael Maltbie, a supervisor with the Radical Fundamentalist Unit at bureau headquarters, to seek a search warrant for Mr. Moussaoui's belongings from a special intelligence court.

Mr. Samit seemed unable to satisfy Mr. Maltbie's demand that he provide a tangible link between Mr. Moussaoui and a foreign power, a requirement for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. He thought he had sufficient evidence from two French intelligence reports showing Mr. Moussaoui had recruited someone to fight in Chechnya for an Islamist group allied with Mr. bin Laden.

But on Aug. 24, 2001, a frustrated Mr. Samit sent an e-mail message to Charles Frahm, a friend and, at the time, an F.B.I. liaison to the C.I.A., asking for information to help make his case. "We're trying to close the wiggle room for F.B.I. headquarters to claim there is no connection to a foreign power," he wrote.

Mr. Moussaoui's lawyers asserted that Mr. Maltbie had undermined the effort to obtain a search warrant by deleting some details from Mr. Samit's requests. Mr. Samit said Mr. Maltbie had told him he was reluctant to press for a warrant because doing so would be risky for his career and "he was not about to let that happen to him."

At the time, the bureau had become wary of applying to the intelligence court because a well-regarded supervisor had angered the court's chief judge in a previous case.

Days later, with the attacks in New York and Washington, the scale of the destruction astonished even Mr. Mohammed. According to the summary, he said he "had no idea that the damage of the first attack would be as catastrophic as it was."