By Timothy Dwyer and Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 10, 2006
Zacarias Moussaoui's plan to learn to fly a Boeing 747 began to unravel the day he met Clarence Prevost, a retired Northwest Airlines and Navy pilot who once flew hurricane hunters.
Prevost, 68, took the stand yesterday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria and described how he quickly became suspicious of Moussaoui after he began one-on-one classroom instruction in August 2001.
He testified that at the end of the first day of classes, he urged the flight executives at the Minnesota school to request an FBI background check on Moussaoui because he was from the Middle East, had paid his $6,800 tuition with $100 bills and, unlike every other student at the school, he wasn't a pilot.
This is the response he got from his boss, he testified: "He paid his money. We don't care." Prevost said he told the executive, "We'll care when he hijacks an airplane, and he's throwing all the switches and then there are all these lawsuits."
The next day, Aug. 14, 2001, after Prevost kept pushing, school officials called the FBI. The following day, Moussaoui was arrested by immigration officials and held on charges that his 90-day visa had expired.
The testimony came on the fourth day of the trial that will determine whether Moussaoui is put to death for his role in the plot that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. An admitted al-Qaeda operative, Moussaoui, 37, pleaded guilty in April to conspiring with al-Qaeda in the worst terrorist attack in American history. He has said that Osama bin Laden instructed him to fly an airplane into the White House at another time.
Prosecutors argue that Moussaoui should be executed because he lied to investigators when he was arrested in Minnesota -- and that Sept. 11 could have been prevented if he revealed all he knew. Defense attorneys say that Moussaoui had no specific knowledge of Sept. 11 and that the government would not have stopped the attacks even if he had confessed. At the time of his arrest, according to Prevost and another flight instructor, Moussaoui had very poor piloting skills.
"He was not a very good pilot, not the best student," testified Shohaib Kassam, his primary flight instructor in Oklahoma, where Moussaoui trained previously. He said that despite 56 hours of flight training in a Cessna, the al-Qaeda member could not fly the plane straight and level or make turns, could not descend and was unable to fly solo.
After being grounded at Airman Flight School in Norman, Okla., he moved on to Pan Am International Flight Academy in Eagan, Minn., where he was assigned to Prevost.
Prevost recalled that at one point on that first day, he asked Moussaoui if he were a Muslim, and Moussaoui shouted, "I am nothing!" Prevost said that alarmed him. "Right then," he testified, "I wanted to get out of that classroom . . . and I said we shouldn't be doing this."
FBI agent Harry Samit testified that Moussaoui was obsessed with his flight training, even after he was arrested. While he was being taken to jail the first night he was in custody, Samit said Moussaoui asked if he could be released for just enough time to finish his training and then he would turn himself back in.
Samit is one of the agents who questioned Moussaoui. He said Moussaoui gave vague answers when asked about his source of income.
"It seemed strange that he couldn't remember how much his salary was, the company he worked for or the family members who he received money from," Samit said.
In response to questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Novak, Samit said that if Moussaoui had told him that he was a member of al-Qaeda, he would have "rang alarm bells."
Samit said he was unable to get approval for a search warrant for Moussaoui's bags that were seized when he was arrested. Finally, a plan was worked out to deport Moussaoui back to his home country, France, because officials there had agreed to search his bags upon arrival. Approval for that plan came late in the afternoon on Sept. 10, 2001.
Testimony will resume Monday.