Moussaoui Testifies of Plan to Attack White House

Zacarias Moussaoui offers surprising testimony at the sentencing phase of his trial. The confessed terrorist told the court he was supposed to hijack a fifth plane on the day of the Sept. 11 attacks and fly it into the White House.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Zacarias Moussaoui told jurors yesterday that he was supposed to crash a fifth plane into the White House. Moussaoui said the plan was interrupted when he was arrested in Minnesota three weeks before the attacks.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports on testimony that surprised Moussaoui's own defense team.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

Moussaoui's defense attorneys never wanted Moussaoui to testify. But when he finally took the stand, it didn't start out bad. Moussaoui said he wasn't the 20th hijacker. He said he wasn't supposed to be on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. Then, in a moment, the trial changed. Moussaoui leaned his elbows on the witness stand, and in a calm, cool voice said, I was supposed to pilot a plane to hit the White House.

His Defense Attorney Gerald Zerkin seemed almost confused. "That's in addition to the planes that struck targets on September 11th?" Moussaoui replied, "I only knew about the two planes to hit the World Trade Center, in addition to our plane." Zerkin stepped back from the podium. He rubbed his head and looked down at his papers. He started to talk, and stopped. He finally asked, "Who were your other members of your crew?" Moussaoui said, almost casually, "Richard Reid." Reid was the would-be shoe bomber convicted of trying to blow up an airliner in-flight, December of 2001.

Mr. ANDREW MCBRIDE (Former Federal Prosecutor): That is incredibly powerful. It's devastating. I don't think the defense can recover from it.

SULLIVAN: Andrew McBride is a former federal prosecutor who has tried cases before this judge, and against several of the defense lawyers.

Mr. MCBRIDE: Essentially, Moussaoui admitted to that jury that he was a Mohammed Ata. That he was a leader trained to fly a plane, and the only reason he didn't is because he was picked up on immigration charges in August. This is a tremendous day for prosecutors. And I think it vindicates the decision of the United States to go forward with the death penalty.

SULLIVAN: In one of the most chilling moments, Moussaoui described receiving a copy of the 9/11 call of a flight attendant aboard one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers. She cried out, "I don't want to die!" Moussaoui told the jury he felt ecstatic when he heard that tape. Moussaoui also said he purposely bought a radio in jail after he was arrested, because he knew an attack was coming soon, and he wanted to listen for it. That issue was perhaps most damaging to Moussaoui's own defense.

Moussaoui testified that he didn't know the specific date of the attacks. But Moussaoui said he did know they were coming sometime after August, that the Twin Towers were two of the targets, and the plan was to use suicide hijackers with small knives. He said he purposefully concealed all of this so that the plot would go forward--exactly what the prosecution said he did.

Professor MICHAEL GREENBERGER (Law Professor, University of Maryland): He gift- wrapped the case once again for the government.

SULLIVAN: University of Maryland law Professor Michael Greenberger worked in the Clinton Justice Department.

Mr. GREENBERGER: I think the only hope the defense now has is that they're put in a rather strange position of hoping the jury disbelieves their own client.

SULLIVAN: By the end of the day, defense attorneys seemed to be thinking that, too. They asked their own client questions that seemed to suggest that Moussaoui was a braggart, or perhaps trying to take credit for something he wasn't a part of. They highlighted the written testimony of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was in U.S. custody. Mohammed told U.S. intelligence officials Moussaoui was never part of 9/11, but was supposed to part of a second wave of attacks.

For the victims' families, none of this was easy.

Ms. APRIL GALLOP(ph): He doesn't even care if he hurts people.

SULLIVAN: April Gallop and her son Elijah were seriously injured at the Pentagon. She comes to trial every few days, and still walks with a cane.

Ms. GALLOP: Trying to go out as some martyr, and the fact that he's going to get credit for most of it, he probably feels good about himself right now, quite frankly.

SULLIVAN: Defense attorneys will continue their case today, but they have only a handful of witnesses left. The first of what will be two phases in this penalty trial is expected to go to the jury Thursday.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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