The Trial of Moussaoui, the Fight Against Terrorism

The verdict of life in prison for confessed al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui comes more than four years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Robert Siegel talks with Jamie S. Gorelick, former member of the 9/11 Commission. Gorelick says that Moussaoui's testimony — that he was meant to fly a fifth plane into the White House with Richard Reid — does not match up with the evidence she reviewed.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Joining us now by phone is Jamie Gorelick, who was a member of the 9/11 Commission. She's a Washington lawyer, she was a high-ranking official in both the Justice and Defense Departments in the Clinton administration. Welcome.

JAMIE GORELICK: I'm happy to be here.

SIEGEL: Zacarias Moussaoui confessed to being a 9/11 conspirator, so that's a legal fact. Based on your understanding, which you've devoted much of your life to in recent years, of what happened before and on 9/11, is it a historical fact that he was a 9/11 conspirator?

GORELICK: It depends on how you define the conspiracy. Clearly, he was training in some fashion to participate in doing harm to American citizens. He was taking training to learn how to fly, but not take off and land. He bought knives. He had some of the same characteristics as the other conspirators who actually participated in 9/11. On the other hand, he wasn't as far along or as far integrated into the plot, the actual plot of the day of 9/11 as the others who actually participated.

SIEGEL: So a peripheral conspirator perhaps, but the only one who's been, or perhaps the only one who will be prosecuted for all we know.

GORELICK: Yes. I mean, there remains ambiguity in this history, and I don't know that we will ever know. There is evidence that he was to be part of the 9/11 plot on the day of, and there's plenty of evidence also that he was not. But we do know that his intentions were terrible ones and that, had he been given the chance, he would have done just what the others did, in fact, do.

SIEGEL: What is your, what do you make of the jury's finding in the first part of the sentencing phase of his trial, that they proceeded to consider capital punishment because they accepted the government's theory that had Moussaoui not lied to federal investigators, murder would have been prevented. Some degree of terror would have been prevented on 9/11.

GORELICK: If the U.S. federal government had known what Moussaoui was, who we had in a holding cell in Minneapolis, and if that had been publicized, there is evidence that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind of the scheme, might have called it off. And certainly, certainly we would have been on the alert for people who were training as Moussaoui was. So if we had understood who Moussaoui was at the time, we might have well prevented 9/11.

SIEGEL: But there was an element of the Moussaoui trial that was a bit of 9/11 Commission redux in brief when the defense demonstrated how many things went wrong in the federal leadup to 9/11. Can you say with confidence that the same agencies that didn't pick up on this plot, in truth, would have picked up on it and would have acted effectively, if only Zacarias Moussaoui had answered their questions honestly?

GORELICK: You can't know for certain what would have happened. But when you listen to Agent Samit and his passionate effort to break through to his superiors within the FBI, you can't help but wonder if he had had more evidence whether he would have been more effective. Or if his superiors at Main Justice and the Attorney General had told the head of the FBI in Minneapolis about the terrible intelligence and the warnings we were getting, whether the two might have met up. It's just impossible to know. But at every stage, with each additional piece of evidence, you could have come closer to preventing the tragedy of 9/11.

SIEGEL: Thank you. That's Jamie Gorelick, who is a 9/11 commissioner.

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Jury Spares Moussaoui from Death Penalty

A courtroom rendering of Zacarias Moussaoui and other court figures. i i

A courtroom rendering of Zacarias Moussaoui during opening statements of the sentencing phase of his trial on March 6, 2006. AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images
A courtroom rendering of Zacarias Moussaoui and other court figures.

A courtroom rendering of Zacarias Moussaoui during opening statements of the sentencing phase of his trial on March 6, 2006.

AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — A federal jury rejected the death penalty for al-Qaida conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui on Wednesday and decided he must spend life in prison for his role in the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

After seven days of deliberation, the nine men and three women rebuffed the government's appeal for death for the only person charged in this country in the four suicide jetliner hijackings that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.

The verdict came after four years of legal maneuvering and a six-week trial that put jurors on an emotional roller coaster and gave the 37-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent a platform to taunt Americans. The judge was to hand down the life sentence Thursday morning, bound by the jury's verdict.

It was the sixth case in a row since the death penalty was restored in 1976 in which federal prosecutors failed to obtain an execution in this courthouse — all the more striking this time because the Pentagon is just miles away.

In their successful defense of Moussaoui, his lawyers revealed new levels of pre-attack bungling of intelligence by the FBI and other government agencies. By the trial's end, the defense team was portraying its uncooperative client as a delusional schizophrenic.

They argued he took the witness stand to confess a role in Sept. 11 that he never had — all to achieve martyrdom through execution or for recognition in history.

They overcame the impact of two dramatic appearances by Moussaoui himself — first to renounce his four years of denying any involvement in the attacks and then to gloat over the pain of those who lost loved ones.

Using evidence gathered in the largest investigation in U.S. history, prosecutors achieved a preliminary victory last month when the jury ruled Moussaoui's lies to federal agents a month before the attacks made him eligible for the death penalty because they kept agents from discovering some of the hijackers.

But even with heart-rending testimony from nearly four dozen victims and their relatives - testimony that forced some jurors to wipe their eyes — the jury was not convinced that Moussaoui, who was in jail on Sept. 11, deserved to die.

The case broke new ground in the understanding of Sept. 11 — releasing to the public the first transcript and playing in court the cockpit tape of United 93's last half hour. The tape captured the sounds of terrorists hijacking the aircraft over Pennsylvania and passengers trying to retake the jet until it crashed in a field.

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