March 21, 2006

F.B.I. Agent Testifies Superiors Didn't Pursue Moussaoui Case

By NEIL A. LEWIS
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/21/national/nationalspecial3/21moussaoui.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=login

ALEXANDRIA, Va., March 20 The F.B.I. agent who arrested and interrogated Zacarias Moussaoui just weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks told a jury on Monday how he had tried repeatedly to get his superiors in Washington to help confirm his certainty that Mr. Moussaoui was involved in an imminent terrorist airline hijacking plot.

But, said the agent, Harry Samit, he was regularly thwarted by senior bureau officials whose obstructionism he later described to Justice Department investigators as "criminally negligent" and who were, he believed, motivated principally by a need to protect their careers.

Mr. Samit's testimony added a wealth of detail to the notion that officials at the Federal Bureau of Investigation played down, ignored and purposely mischaracterized the increasingly dire warnings from field agents in the Minneapolis office that they had a terrorist on their hands in Mr. Moussaoui.

"I accused the people in F.B.I. headquarters of criminal negligence" in an interview after Sept. 11, Mr. Samit acknowledged under intense questioning by Edward B. MacMahon Jr., Mr. Moussaoui's chief court-appointed lawyer.

Mr. Samit confirmed that he had told Justice Department investigators that the senior agents in Washington "took a calculated risk not to advance the investigation" by refusing to seek search warrants for Mr. Moussaoui's belongings and computer. He testified that he had come to believe that "the wager was a national tragedy."

Mr. Samit was a witness for the prosecution, which is trying to have Mr. Moussaoui executed for the deaths that occurred on Sept. 11. In his direct testimony more than a week ago, he bolstered the prosecutors' case by saying that had Mr. Moussaoui answered his questions honestly when he arrested him for immigration violations, it would have set off a chain of inquiries that could have foiled the Sept. 11 plot.

But under Mr. MacMahon's questions, Mr. Samit provided much new evidence and testimony suggesting strongly that the more significant factors in the failure to learn of the plot from Mr. Moussaoui involved the decisions of senior F.B.I. officials.

Mr. Samit's testimony paralleled the complaints of Coleen Rowley, an agent and lawyer in the Minneapolis office who sent a letter on May 21, 2002, to the bureau director, Robert S. Mueller III, bitterly criticizing the performance of F.B.I. headquarters agents in handling the Moussaoui case.

But unlike Ms. Rowley, who has since left the bureau, Mr. Samit remains an agent and tried on Monday to adopt a defensive posture on its behalf. Nonetheless, his testimony provided a vivid condemnation of the bureau, as he was obliged to confirm how he had told investigators of his belief that his superiors had tried to sidestep their responsibilities.

Mr. Samit said two senior agents had declined to provide help in obtaining a search warrant, either through a special panel of judges that considers applications for foreign intelligence cases or through a normal application to any federal court for a criminal investigation.

As a field agent in Minnesota, he said, he required help and approval from headquarters to continue his investigation. He acknowledged that he had asserted that Michael Maltbie, a supervisor in the bureau's Radical Fundamentalist Unit, had told him that applications for the special intelligence court warrants had proved troublesome for the bureau and that seeking one "was just the kind of thing that would get F.B.I. agents in trouble."

Mr. Samit wrote that Mr. Maltbie had told him that "he was not about to let that happen to him." During that period, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had complained about improper applications from the bureau.

Mr. Samit also acknowledged that he had asserted to investigators that David Frasca, Mr. Maltbie's superior, had similarly blocked him from seeking a search warrant under the more common route, a criminal investigation. Some of the special court's complaints dealt with the idea that law-enforcement officials were sometimes exploiting the lower standard required for warrants in intelligence investigations and then using the information that they obtained in criminal cases.

Mr. Frasca, Mr. Samit explained, believed that once the Moussaoui investigation was opened as an intelligence inquiry, it would arouse suspicion that agents had been trying to abuse the intelligence law to get information for a case they now believed was a criminal one.

Mr. Samit's comments, which were made to investigators for the Justice Department's inspector general and in a subsequent memorandum to the F.B.I., had not been made public before. The report by the inspector general on the bureau's Sept. 11 performance was released in June 2005 but had substantial deletions.

Mr. Samit said senior bureau officials had even been told he was trying to prevent someone from flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

William Carter, an F.B.I. spokesman, said that neither the bureau nor Mr. Maltbie nor Mr. Frasca, who are still employed there, would have any comment.

The cross-examination of Mr. Samit was delayed after his initial testimony when the trial was interrupted following disclosures that a government lawyer had improperly coached several aviation security officials who were to testify.

Judge Leonie M. Brinkema ruled that because of the coaching, the prosecution would be unable to use those witnesses to make the case that security could have been bolstered, possibly foiling the plot, if Mr. Moussaoui had told Mr. Samit about his knowledge of plans by Al Qaeda to fly planes into buildings.

Judge Brinkema's sanctions on the prosecution for Ms. Martin's behavior nearly wrecked the government's case. But on Friday, Judge Brinkema ruled that the government could try to find new untainted aviation security witnesses.