March 21, 2006
F.B.I. Agent Testifies Superiors Didn't Pursue Moussaoui Case
By NEIL A. LEWIS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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