Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Top FBI official unaware of Moussaoui terror ties

Top FBI official unaware of Moussaoui terror ties
By Deborah Charles

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) - The FBI official in charge of international terrorism before September 11 said on Tuesday he did not know an agent had warned three weeks before the hijackings that he suspected Zacarias Moussaoui was plotting a terrorist act.

Michael Rolince, the chief of the FBI's international terrorism operation section in 2001, testified at Moussaoui's sentencing trial that he was unaware of a long report written by the FBI agent spelling out his theories.

Harry Samit, the FBI agent who arrested Moussaoui three weeks before the deadly airliner hijackings that killed 3,000 people, testified on Monday that agency superiors repeatedly blocked his efforts to warn of a possible terror attack.

Moussaoui, an admitted al Qaeda member, has pleaded guilty to six charges of conspiracy in connection with the September 11 attacks. The trial -- the only one in the United States in connection with the attacks -- will determine if he is sentenced to death.

Samit said after questioning Moussaoui he knew the Frenchman of Moroccan descent had "radical Islamic fundamentalist beliefs" and thought he was part of a bigger plot to attack the United States. In a message to his superiors on August 18, 2001, Samit said he believed Moussaoui was "conspiring to commit a terrorist act."

But Rolince said although he knew of Moussaoui's arrest, he did not know about the contents of a long message that Samit had sent to FBI headquarters.

Defense lawyer Edward MacMahon asked Rolince if was aware that Samit believed Moussaoui was a Muslim fundamentalist who was learning to fly a jumbo jet, and that the agent believed he was a terrorist who could be possibly planning a hijacking.

"No," Rolince said. "Can I ask what document that's coming from?"

"Sure, that's Mr. Samit's communication to your office ... August 18, 2001," MacMahon replied.

Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota on August 16, 2001, after raising suspicions at a flight school. He was held on immigration charges.

Rolince said the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community were on heightened alert for a possible terror attack in the months leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks.

He said the FBI knew there were al Qaeda operatives in the United States in the summer of 2001 and knew that one possible form of attack by Muslim fundamentalists might be hijacking an airplane.

"I was aware of threats to hijack aircraft throughout the world," he said.

But Rolince said the FBI did not have enough evidence to charge Moussaoui at the time.

"Agent Samit's suppositions and hunches were one thing," he said. "What we actually knew was something else."

Rolince said he did not even feel the information was strong enough to brief more senior officials.

"Zacarias Moussaoui was arrested on immigration charges ... the case was not anywhere near fully developed," he said when asked why he did not brief then-Attorney General John Ashcroft about Moussaoui.