TOPICS > World

First Indictment

December 11, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The first person to be indicted in the September 11 attacks will be arraigned in Virginia next month. Zacarias Moussaoui was detained by the FBI in August, on visa violation charges. He had come under suspicion when he was in flight training school in Minnesota. FBI Director Robert Mueller said today the Bureau continued to investigate Moussaoui after he was in custody.

ROBERT MUELLER: As we have uncovered information on the September 11 attacks, and as is alleged in the indictment, Moussaoui followed many of the same patterns and took many of the same steps as the other… as the 19 hijackers. As the indictment charges, Moussaoui was present at an al-Qaida based terrorist training camp in Afghanistan three years ago.

He attended flight school and took commercial flight training courses. He purchased flight deck videos from an Ohio flight store just as Mohamed Atta and the other hijackers had done before him. He purchased knives and protective equipment. He looked into global positioning system technology. And like Atta, he also researched crop-dusting.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the indictment, we’re joined by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon. What does the federal government say that Zacarias Moussaoui did?

PHILIP SHENON: He conspired in terrorism; he conspired with the September 11th hijackers. He worked with Osama bin Laden.

RAY SUAREZ: And given the fact that on September 11, three of the planes had teams of five hijackers and one had four, are they operating on the theory that perhaps this man, Moussaoui, was the 20th hijacker?

PHILIP SHENON: Indeed. It appears that another man, a Yemeni citizen by the name of Ramsey al Bin Sheeb, was originally intended to be the 20th hijacker. He attempted repeatedly to enter the United States but always had his visas denied. At that point – at some point last summer it appears the decision was made to make Moussaoui the 20th hijacker.

RAY SUAREZ: Now in the indictment, which is fairly extensive, there’s a lot of talk about what other people did and the dates on which they allegedly did them. When you talk about Moussaoui in particular, beyond the patterns of behavior that resemble what the other hijackers did in the run-up to September, do they allege… Is there a connection to a particular crime, to a deed, to an act, that they say Moussaoui did this and therefore he’s part of this?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, the key evidence and what they go into in great detail, the prosecutors go to in great detail in the indictment is that Moussaoui received an awful lot of money, $14,000, from this man al Bin Sheeb who was expected to be the 20th hijacker. The evidence seems to be in the nature of these financial transactions.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in the weeks after September 11 when Moussaoui went from being held on the visa charge to being held as a material witness, it was reported by federal authorities that he was totally tight lipped, he wasn’t talking at all. Is there any indication, either from the officials who spoke today or from the indictment itself, that he started to make statements?

PHILIP SHENON: No, I think every understanding we have is that he has remained tight lipped. He has retained an attorney. We don’t know much about that attorney, and that attorney has said nothing so far.

RAY SUAREZ: The arraignment is set for January 2 in the eastern district of Virginia, in a federal court. After all the discussion that we’ve had in this country about military tribunals in the last couple of weeks, was there any indication from the Department of Justice or the FBI why they’re not moving to try Moussaoui in one of these military tribunals?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, apparently there was debate, a fairly heated debate, about whether or not to put Moussaoui before a military tribunal. But there were an awful lot of people at the Justice Department who felt that this case like other terrorism cases before it could be handled before a civilian court and would end with a reasonably easy conviction for the government.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there in technical terms an expos facto problem? Because he was held before September 11, because he was held before these military tribunals were proposed, does he make a dicier case on technical grounds or is it really a simple matter, if they had wanted to proceed with a military tribunal to try him there?

PHILIP SHENON: We’ve not heard there was any expost facto problem. As I say, apparently what — the argument that won over officials at the Justice Department and elsewhere in the administration is that the evidence against him is reasonably clear cut and should result in a reasonably easy conviction in the eastern district in Virginia, which is a pretty conservative place with a tendency to… with an awful lot of military families living in the vicinity who may not feel very hospitably towards Mr. Moussaoui.

RAY SUAREZ: Oh, so you’re saying that might be part of the reason why this wasn’t brought in either Washington D.C., or New York?

PHILIP SHENON: I think there is that understanding. The eastern district encompasses the Pentagon. It’s a natural place for the indictment to be brought. And it is known as a fairly conservative community with an awful lot of military families living there.

RAY SUAREZ: When you read the indictment, you find that Osama bin Laden himself is named as an unindicted co-conspirator, and, indeed, his activities and the activities of his associates are detailed in the indictment. Why do they remain unindicted? Why are they named in that way?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, Osama bin Laden has been indicted in previous terrorism incidents. I don’t think we have a clear understanding yet as to why Osama bin Laden wasn’t indicted in this indictment, but it does appear that the government wants to keep its options open should it decide to seek a military tribunal for him.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a death-eligible case?

PHILIP SHENON: Absolutely. Four of the six charges involve the death penalty.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it difficult or made complicated by the fact that Moussaoui is a citizen of France and there have been disputes between France and the United States over the use of the death penalty in the past?

PHILIP SHENON: We’ve not heard that raised as an issue. The French embassy in Washington had no immediate comment on this, but as I say, we’ve had no… We’ve heard no complaints at this point from the French government.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this a case that looks ready to go and is set to proceed rather quickly after January 2? Is there an interest in moving this kind of thing along?

PHILIP SHENON: I suspect that Attorney General Ashcroft and other senior officials at the Justice Department and certainly a lot of line prosecutors would welcome the opportunity to lay out in greater detail than has been laid out to date the nature of the September 11 conspiracy and a Moussaoui trial would offer them that opportunity.

RAY SUAREZ: So when the arraignment gets going and there’s evidentiary hearings and that kind of thing, people like you will start to get a better idea of what the grand jury saw?

PHILIP SHENON: Absolutely, as will the American public. I think that is what an awful lot of aggressive line prosecutors want, an opportunity to really present this case in the fullest possible detail.

RAY SUAREZ: Phil Shenon, thanks a lot.