The coordinator of the Sept. 11 plot told interrogators that he believed Zacarias Moussaoui was to participate in the hijackings, but another top al Qaeda detainee said Moussaoui was part of a second wave of attacks, according to a report released yesterday.
The secret statements of Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, unveiled by the independent commission probing the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provide by far the most specific information to date on the key issue that has stalled Moussaoui's prosecution. Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with Sept. 11, has been seeking access to the two detainees to bolster his defense. The issue has been tied up in the courts for more than a year.
Binalshibh, the self-described coordinator of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, said he sent $14,000 to Moussaoui in July 2001 on instructions from Mohammed that he understood to be "part of the 9/11 plot," the commission's report says. The report says "there is good reason to believe" that Mohammed was preparing Moussaoui as a potential substitute pilot because one of the 19 hijackers was considering dropping out.
But Mohammed, who was al Qaeda's operations chief, "denies that Moussaoui was ever intended to be part of the 9/11 operation," the report says. Instead, it says, Moussaoui was being groomed for a second wave of attacks on the West Coast after Sept. 11. That wave fizzled, and Mohammed said the two other pilots who had been recruited for it already had backed out before Moussaoui was arrested in August 2001.
The report acknowledges that the statements of Mohammed and Binalshibh, who are being interrogated at undisclosed locations, are "not entirely consistent."
Still, some lawyers said the statements bolster the prosecution's case against Moussaoui because they implicate him on the main charge against him -- conspiring with al Qaeda in a broad plot that led to Sept. 11. But the lawyers said the detainees could make it more difficult for the government to secure a death sentence. For that, they said, prosecutors need to link Moussaoui to the events that day.
"The conviction is no problem," said Andrew McBride, a former federal prosecutor closely following the case, citing the broad nature of federal conspiracy law and the charges against Moussaoui.
But, McBride added, "if somebody is willing to say that he was never intended to be part of 9/11, that could hurt them on the death penalty."
Sources close to the case said the detainees' statements released by the commission are incomplete, adding that Binalshibh indicated at different points in his interrogations that Moussaoui was not part of the Sept. 11 plot. Both the federal judge overseeing the case in Alexandria and a federal appeals court have found that the detainees gave interrogators information that could help Moussaoui's case.
Edward B. MacMahon Jr., an attorney for Moussaoui, criticized the commission for disclosing the information and the government for declassifying it, calling it "selective" and saying it would hamper Moussaoui's ability to get a fair trial. "It's only released in the context of the 9/11 plot, so it assumes in all regards that Moussaoui is involved," he said.
Justice Department officials declined to comment, and commission spokesman Al Felzenberg said only that the panel was seeking to make as much information public as possible.
Moussaoui, a French citizen, was indicted in December 2001. His efforts to gain access to Mohammed, Binalshibh and a third detainee have stalled the case since a judge ruled in January 2003 that he could question Binalshibh. The judge later ordered depositions of Mohammed and the third detainee. The government refused to provide the witnesses on national security grounds, and a federal appeals court in April said Moussaoui could not interview them but could have access to their statements. The appellate court is now considering a defense appeal of that ruling.