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JIM LEHRER: The arraignment today of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person thus far charged with direct involvement in the September 11 terrorist attacks. We get more on today’s events from New York Times reporter David Johnston.
He was at the federal courthouse this morning in Alexandria, Virginia, which is only two miles from the pentagon, one of the attack targets. David Johnston, welcome. First, remind us of what exactly Moussaoui is charged with.
DAVID JOHNSTON: Moussaoui is charged with six counts most of them are terrorism related. Mass murder, use of weapons of mass destruction, and effort to kill government employees. Four of those counts are death penalty eligible.
JIM LEHRER: And what is alleged that he actually did that is connected to September 11?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Much of the evidence in the case is circumstantial. The indictment against him that was brought in early December said that he had engaged in many of the same activities as the hijackers did. He enrolled in flight training schools, he had sought information out about crop dusting aircraft. He had purchased knives.
The strongest evidence may be the link between Moussaoui and a man named al Shib in Germany who investigators thought originally may have been the 20th hijacker and who was unable to get into the United States after repeated attempts.
Investigators of and the authorities believe and have charged in the indictment that Moussaoui entered the United States and that al Shib who then became his financier and pay master along with providing funds to other of the hijackers like Mohammed Atta who is thought to be the ring leader.
JIM LEHRER: And Moussaoui is what, 32 years old?
DAVID JOHNSTON: 33 year -
JIM LEHRER: — 33 years old.
DAVID JOHNSTON: — old French citizen of Moroccan descent.
JIM LEHRER: And he came here and was arrested in Minnesota before September 11.
DAVID JOHNSTON: He was arrested in August after a flight training school employee thought that he was acting oddly. Apparently, Moussaoui was acting sort of belligerently, according to this fellow, and in a demanding way, had trouble speaking English, and wanted to fly a 747 but clearly had very little training or knowledge in how to do it.
JIM LEHRER: And he was in fact in custody on September 11 and under, on an immigration charge, correct?
DAVID JOHNSTON: He was — his visa had run out, and he was arrested on a visa violation. Then after September 11, he was charged as a material witness and transported to New York and was in custody there.
Then he was indicted on December 11 and then in the eastern district of Virginia, which is in Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and that’s where he has been charged and that is where he will be tried.
JIM LEHRER: And that brings to us today. Set the scene in the courthouse in Alexandria. What was it like there?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Security was very tight this morning. There were federal marshals patrolling the perimeter of the courthouse. A group of them brought Moussaoui into the courtroom, Moussaoui is dressed in a green jumpsuit with the word “prisoner” painted across the back. Spectators in the courtroom had to go through two metal detectors to get inside.
JIM LEHRER: How many spectators were allowed in?
DAVID JOHNSTON: There were about, I would say probably 50 reporters and a handful of members of the public turned out to see the arraignment today.
JIM LEHRER: What did Moussaoui look – what was his demeanor? Tell us what he looked like to you sitting there.
DAVID JOHNSTON: He was, very, he did not particularly have any, display any emotion. He sat in his chair. He spoke only once when he was asked to enter his plea. And he invoked the name of Allah and said he no plea to enter. The judge responded that Leonie Brinkema, the United States District judge in the case, responded that she would interpret that as a plea of “not guilty,” and that is the plea that was entered.
Moussaoui then was silent through the rest of the proceeding, which took place about a half hour — and basically stared ahead and kind of slumped in his chair and said nothing to his lawyers.
JIM LEHRER: Were there any members of — His mother is in the country. Was she in the courtroom?
DAVID JOHNSTON: His mother arrived in the United States last week and did not see him saying that she did not want to accept the condition that an FBI agent had to be present each time she saw him.
And she refused to come to the courtroom today saying that it was upsetting to her and that she thought it would be upsetting for him to see her in this kind of circumstance. She has insisted on his innocence in this.
JIM LEHRER: Now, as you say, the proceeding lasted 30 minutes. After he entered his plea then what, there was an argument over the date the trial should begin, correct? Take us through that.
DAVID JOHNSTON: There was considerable discussion about a variety of dates in the case — primarily the setting of the trial date, which is again October 14th. The defense felt that the jury selection, which would begin on September 30th, was too close to what would be the first anniversary of September 11, and that potential jurors would be unduly influenced by what they perceive to be massive publicity that would fall around that date.
The government said that the judge in the court would have to deal with publicity in this case no matter when the trial date was set and the judge herself seemed sympathetic to the government and dismissed the defense assertions this might pose a problem for jurors in the case.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, tell us about the judge. What is her background and what is the word on her in the courthouse?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, around the courthouse and in legal circles in Virginia she is known as a tough judge, but a fair judge. And certainly in a district that is known as one of the more conservative in the country she is regarded as something of a liberal. She has been reversed by the 4th Circuit on some instances.
But I think the word around the courthouse seems to be that she will conduct a trial in a speedy manner. The Eastern District is known as the rocket docket for how quickly justice is dispensed in this district. But she will be fair. She is a former prosecutor. She is a Clinton appointee, who has been on the bench since 1993.
JIM LEHRER: All right. The two teams of lawyers, defending Moussaoui, federal public defender group, correct?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Yeah, led by the chief public defender, a federal public defender for the Eastern District, Frank Dunham. He has been a longtime prosecutor and lawyer in the area. He has just established the Federal Public Defenders Office in this district and has long experienced. He is assisted by Gerald Zirkon and another fellow, Ed McMahon. Mr. Zirkon is one of the nation’s foremost death penalty defense experts.
JIM LEHRER: Now these three men were appointed; they were not selected by Moussaoui and are not being paid by Moussaoui or any of his friends or associates, correct?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No, they are court-appointed and they are being paid by the public fund.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Now the prosecutors.
DAVID JOHNSTON: The prosecution is led by of Robert Spencer. He is a senior prosecutor in the eastern district. Ken Carris from the, from New York, and is experienced in the East Africa bombing case that has been tried in New York over the last couple of years involving al-Qaida defendants.
JIM LEHRER: Is the word, what is the word on whether or not this is going, this is an evenly matched group of lawyers, that Moussaoui is going to get a good defense against a good prosecution team or what is the word?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think within legal circles there is a very strong feeling that these are two extremely able teams, and that this case is going to be very complex, but very hard fought and very ably fought by two groups of people who are very, very smart and know their way around this particular district and who know the issues that are likely to be raised in this case.
JIM LEHRER: Why was this case, why is this case being tried in Alexandria, David?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, there was a considerable amount of debate about how this case was going to be charged and where it was going to be tried. I think that there was a certain amount of feeling that the case should be tried in the Eastern District in part because juries in this district are somewhat more sympathetic to bringing verdicts of a death sentence.
And I think that is one of the factors. Obviously the Pentagon is here. It’s close to the Justice Department. It’s just a short drive to senior Justice Department officials who are going to be heavily involved in this case. I think those are some of the factors involved here.
JIM LEHRER: In a lot of major cases — not like this exactly — but espionage cases and those kind of things have been tried in this district, have they not?
DAVID JOHNSTON: The eastern district of Virginia has a number of espionage case that be tried here, the Hanssen case involving Robert Hanssen was here.
JIM LEHRER: A former FBI agent.
DAVID JOHNSTON: A former FBI agent.
JIM LEHRER: Right.
DAVID JOHNSTON: The Aldrich Ames case, CIA – that case was tried there as well.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Finally, Moussaoui, is he cooperating with the government as far as anybody knows?
DAVID JOHNSTON: As far as we know, Moussaoui has not cooperated with the government at all. He has had, he has really just had a brief opportunity to meet with his own defense team. But there was a strong sense that Moussaoui is not cooperating.
JIM LEHRER: But is he cooperating with his lawyers? I mean is he participating in his defense, or do we know?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Well, I think it’s early. Moussaoui has been in New York and did not have a chance to meet with his lawyers. He wasn’t brought down here until a week or so ago. And I think whatever meetings they’ve had have been preliminary.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. David Johnston, thank you very much.
DAVID JOHNSTON: Thank you.