September 11, 2001

The Moussaoui Controversy

Whether or not Zacharias Moussauoi receives the death penalty for his involvement in 9/11, his guilty plea precludes a trial that would bring forth embarrassing facts that would place our legal, security, intelligence and immigration services into disrepute.

What follows is only a small portion of what you will NOT hear when he is sentenced.

Although investigations subsequent to 9/11 have suggested that Zacharias Moussaoui was not the “20th hijacker” of United Airlines Flight 93 that slammed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania killing all on board in the early morning hours of September 11, 2001, he is now acknowledged to have been involved in planning a “second wave” of airliner hijackings that was to have occurred at a later date. The manner in which his case (and other similar cases) was handled, however, has become a statement of how those who were entrusted with the security of the American people betrayed that trust.


First, some history. Governments, like the people who run them, are loath to move out of their “comfort zone” (or change their security paradigms) unless they are compelled by circumstance to do so. Prior to the events of 9/11, with the exception of searching for guns and explosive devices, passengers had been taking almost everything under the sun (no doubt including box cutters) onto commercial aircraft without incident.

That is because the pre-9/11 threat assessment ran something like this…

The oceans have always protected us from external threats, and even if that were not the case, our technological prowess and advanced weaponry will. Thus, given the relatively small incidence of hijackings (as compared with the number of worldwide flights), what justification is there for pilots to carry weapons? Why is it necessary to barricade the cockpit to protect our pilots? Why is it necessary to hire sky marshals to protect airline passengers? Who would be crazy enough to commandeer a commercial aircraft and crash it into a building? These unnecessary and expensive precautions will only annoy passengers, delay loading and boarding, increase ticket costs, and quite possibly result in negative political and financial fallout such as the loss of business and government funding.

In short, based upon historical experience, and despite an unpleasant array of facts suggesting that the nature of the security threat had changed in the post Cold War era, the perceived risk did not justify the expenditure of political and financial capital.

American intelligence knew for at least seven years prior to September 11th, 2001 that Islamic terrorists had been plotting to use passenger airliners as cruise missiles, but their threat assessments were based, in part, upon a “peace dividend” that was expected following the end of the Cold War. That dividend included saving millions of dollars by gutting the intelligence and national security budgets. It was this lack of imagination, combined with our false security threat assessments compounded by legal barriers that inhibited the open exchange of critical information between our major security and intelligence agencies that led to disaster.

Which leads to the case of Zacharias Moussaoui. After flunking out of the Airman Flight School in Norman, Oklahoma (August 2001) due to poor flying skills, Moussaoui began training to fly jumbo jets at a flight school in Egan, Minnesota (Pan Am International Flight Academy). The Director of Operations at the Academy (John Rosengren) recounted how Moussaoui’s instructor was “concerned and wondered why someone who was not a pilot and had so little experience was trying to pack so much training into such a short time….” There was much discussion by him about how much fuel was on board a 747-400 and how much damage that could cause if it hit anything.

More significantly, Moussaoui did not appear to be interested in takeoffs or landings, only in steering! His instructors noted at the time that he was inept in basic flying procedures, yet he had paid over $6,000 in cash for expensive training on an advanced commercial jet simulator. It just didn’t add up. Even the flight school’s own employees began whispering that he could be a hijacker.

As a result of these concerns, the Minneapolis FBI was contacted and Moussaoui was arrested on August 16, 2001. Ten days after his arrest (on August 26, 2001), Agent Colleen Rowley, a 21-year veteran of the FBI was notified by the French authorities that Moussaoui was suspected of having contacts with Islamic extremists – specifically al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. She immediately viewed Moussaoui as a terrorist suspect and, in a confidential internal memorandum, sought authorization for a special counterintelligence FISA surveillance warrant to search the hard drive of his home computer.

In her initial memorandum, Rowley wrote that Moussaoui might have been taking flight lessons in the hope of one-day flying a plane “into the World Trade Center.” But the Justice Department (plus top FBI) officials blocked the request for a national security warrant claiming that FBI agents “lacked sufficient information” to prove that Moussaoui was an agent of a foreign power or a terrorist group. The warrant block however remained in place even after notification from French intelligence that Moussaoui was linked to bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Despite her repeated attempts to analyze the computer hard drive, Rowley met with an annoyed reaction and was finally told not to call anymore. The 9/11 Commission would be told that FBI officials feared breaching the 1995 “procedural barrier” that inhibited the sharing of intelligence information and criminal information between the CIA and the FBI. (This “procedural barrier” was later removed by The USA Patriot Act).

As it happens, Moussaoui’s laptop computer was finally deciphered in the months following September 11, 2001. To the shock of FBI investigators, his files disclosed that he had indeed received funding from Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the financial link to the 9/11 Hamburg cell that led the 9/11 attacks. Bin al-Shibh had also been the roommate of another person with links to Islamic terrorist groups in Israel and Germany. That person’s name was Mohamed Atta.

But Rowley was not alone is her frustration. A month earlier, on July 10, 2001, Kenneth Williams, an 11-year veteran of the counter-terrorism squad of the FBI in Phoenix had written an identical memorandum to FBI Headquarters speculating that several Muslim flight school students in his area could be followers of Osama bin Ladin, and that they might be terrorists learning how to fly so that they could hijack a passenger plane. Williams had noticed that ten students from Pakistan, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia were either taking flight hours or studying airplane construction or international flight safety. After interrogating several of them and noting their hostility to the United States, he recognized that these students were suspiciously well informed about security measures at American airports. He suggested that the FBI conduct a nationwide survey of Arab students who were attending American flight schools. The memorandum noted that the FBI should consider “seeking the necessary authority to obtain visa information from the State Department on individuals obtaining visas to attend flight schools and to notify the appropriate FBI field office when these individuals are scheduled to arrive in their area of responsibility.” He concluded, “The individuals will be in a position in the future to conduct terror activity against civil aviation targets.”

Williams had made the connection between Middle Eastern men enrolled in Phoenix-area flight schools and Sheikh Omar Bakri, a Syrian-born Muslim cleric and the leader of a London-based terrorist organization known as al-Muhajihrun – an organization known as “the eyes and ears of bin Laden” and claiming to speak on behalf of bin Laden’s “International Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders”. Bakri was also one of several individuals in 1998 to receive a letter faxed from bin Laden in Afghanistan outlining four objectives for the Jihad against the United States including the hijacking of airliners.

William’s memorandum went to two task forces at FBI headquarters – the Radical Fundamentalist Unit and one dedicated to Osama bin Laden. His colleagues in New York, however, replied that Williams’s comments were “speculative and not very significant.” Nothing was done. Part of the reason (later given by current and former FBI agents) was that “terrorism investigations” ranked fourth on the Phoenix office’s list of priorities behind drug trafficking by organized crime, white-collar crime and crimes committed on Indian reservations and that the most pressing case at that time concerned arson fires started by an ecoterrorist.

As it happens, one of the students who would have come under close scrutiny at the Phoenix flight school was a Saudi named Hani Hanjour. Weeks later, Hanjour, together with four other Islamic terrorists, would murder the flight crew of American Airlines Flight 77 and pilot their hijacked jet into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

The Congressional 9/11 Report found that FBI Headquarters was operating in the dark about al Qaeda operations in America. Consequently, no one at FBI Headquarters connected the two parallel concerns of Rowley and Williams. They had missed the significance of al Qaeda members training at American flight schools and at U.S. military installations around the country – installations that included the Air War College (Montgomery, Alabama); Lackland Air Force Base (San Antonio, Texas); the International Officers School at Maxwell Air Force Base (Montgomery, Alabama); the Aerospace Medical School at Brooks Air Force Base (Texas); and the Defense Language Institute (Monterey, California). But the true intelligence failures involved the repeated and willful refusal of CIA counter-intelligence management to share information with the FBI (and visa-versa) for fear of legal repercussions and the culture of secrecy that (to this day) continues to permeate these and the other thirteen U.S. intelligence agencies.

Justice Department lawyers and immigration officials were more concerned about privacy issues than national security. Those whom we had entrusted with our security facilitated the comings and goings of these terrorists to and from America. Our immigration policies were designed to service our erstwhile allies not to protect our nation. One of the hijackers (Abdulaziz Alomari) claimed to be a student, but didn’t name a school; he claimed to be married but didn’t name a spouse; and under nationality and gender, he didn’t list anything. Another (Khalid Al-Mihdhar) simply listed “Hotel” as his US destination – no name, no city, no state – but no problem getting a visa. Only one actually gave a US destination, and one stated his destination as “no.” Only Hani Hanjour had a slight delay in acquiring his visa. His first application was flagged because he wrote that he wanted to visit for three years when the legal limit was two. He simply changed the form to read “one year” and was accepted.

We may have succeeded in “streamlining” our immigration procedures by expediting Saudi visa requests* (opening the floodgates to 15 of the 19 September 11th Saudi terrorists) and compartmentalized critical information to protect our right to privacy, but in so doing we welcomed monsters like Zacharias Moussaoui, Hani Hanjour, Abdulaziz Alomari, Saeed Alghamdi, Khalid Al-Mihdhar and Mohamed Atta into our country and sacrificed our nation’s security. The sloppy practices, inadequate human intelligence, and lack of imagination shown by our security, intelligence, legal and immigration services cost the lives of thousands of Americans and borders on criminal negligence.

Whether or not Moussaoui pays the ultimate price for his part in the conspiracy, the unfortunate truth is that we let him in and protected him and the others by our own incompetence. When everything is finally known about the circumstances leading to September 11, 2001, that will prove to be the greatest betrayal of them all.

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