Wednesday, June 12, 2002

Zacarias Moussaoui is in jail facing the death penalty, and not the tiniest part of his story makes any sense:

  1. He was arrested when he made himself conspicuous by being unnecessarily argumentative and refusing to speak French to a French speaker. This is exactly the kind of behaviour that the famous al-Qaeda manual would caution against. It is as if Moussaoui were trying to be arrested. This is yet another example of one of the terrorist suspects courting disaster for the whole project by being gratuitously visible to people in authority.

  2. Moussaoui was arrested for odd reasons. In fact, his arrest still has not been satisfactorily explained. He was turned in by a flight instructor who phoned the FBI (and even made the connection that the type of plane he was training on could be used as a weapon, a connection that is supposed to have been beyond the ken of the Bush Administration!). It appears that local FBI suspicions were raised by his disruptive behaviour and the fact that he was an Arab man taking flying lessons. Apparently, the story that he claimed to only want to learn to fly in the air and not to take off or land is misinformation (although it is still being presented as fact), and may have been created to give the FBI an excuse to detain him. The main story is that the suspicions were raised when he spent a lot of money for a few lessons on a Boeing 747 flight simulator when he didn't have a pilot's license. Much of the rationale for arresting Moussaoui has appeared after September 11. It now appears that he may have had financial connections to a man (al Shibh) who was also financing some of the September 11 hijackers. On the other hand, this financier may simply have been forwarding charitable help to Moussaoui to allow him to learn to fly and obtain a job in the United States. The case against Moussaoui was so weak that he was actually originally detained only for being in breach of immigration law.

  3. Moussaoui is facing the death penalty. Apparently this is a prosecutorial trick to obtain a jury more likely to convict (another reason that the existence of the death penalty makes the U. S. criminal justice system unjust). Given the paucity of evidence against him, the death penalty seems like an extreme overreaction. The authorities also seem to be psychologically torturing him by keeping him isolated, which may explain his bizarre courtroom behaviour. The main evidence against him seems to be the fact that he owned a crop-dusting manual and knew some suspicious people. There does not appear to be any evidence that he had anything to do with the terrorist planning, and, in particular, no evidence that he conspired with anyone to do an illegal act. If they eventually throw the switch and fry him, he will be the first person in the United States to be executed for owning a book.

  4. Moussaoui has commonly been referred to as the '20th hijacker', i. e., the missing 5th hijacker on Flight 93 (all the other hijacked planes are said to have had 5 hijackers). It seems highly unlikely that he was a part of the hijacking group. The hijackers were careful to train together, live together, travel together, and generally associate in as public a manner as possible. As far as we know, Moussaoui did not associate with any of the others. The closest he came to the others was that he was living in Norman, Oklahoma when one of the hijackers (Alhazmi) got a speeding ticket nearby, an interesting fact, particularly given the oddly important role that Oklahoma City plays in the September 11 terrorism, but hardly enough to tie him to the terrorist group.

  5. There has been much made of the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice in Washington, D. C. refused to obtain a FISA warrant to allow local Minnesota FBI agents to search Moussaoui's hard drive. Indeed, this refusal now forms the crux of the attack on the FBI for its mistakes made prior to September 11. It appears that this wasn't just the usual bureaucratic bungling - there appears to be active intervention to prevent the warrant from being obtained, including much quibbling about the validity of evidence obtained from French intelligence sources and possibly going as far as efforts to sabotage the local FBI's investigation of Moussaoui. The right-wingers blame this on a bureaucratic fear of being accused of racial profiling, but if there was any racial profiling it had already been done when he was detained in Minnesota and so hardly seems to be the concern of Washington officials. The oddest thing about all this is that a post-September 11 search of his hard drive revealed: 1) a manual on crop-dusting (not an unlikely thing to have for someone training to be a pilot in the midwestern United States); 2) the phone number of someone who may have been a former roommate of Atta's (Ramzi bin al Shibh), the same guy who allegedly sent Moussaoui money; and 3) correspondence signed by a Malaysian named Yazid Sufaat, who the CIA had tied to the two hijackers who had been put on the CIA watch list. However, even if the FBI had contacted the roommate prior to September 11 (and they still don't know where he is), it is highly unlikely that they would have been led to Atta in time to stop the terrorism. Since the FBI wasn't aware, or at least fully aware, of the investigation by the CIA, the connections to the Malaysian almost certainly wouldn't have meant anything to them. It is therefore unlikely that a timely investigation of Moussaoui's hard drive would have prevented September 11, and it is odd that so much is being made of this unless someone is using it for political purposes to deflect the blame from the real responsible parties and, as a bonus, attack the restrictions on racial profiling (fear of racial profiling was an excuse used by the FBI early on to justify their lack of action in obtaining the FISA warrant). It is very telling that the CIA Director, George Tenet, is reported to have immediately thought of Moussaoui and bin Laden when he was informed of the September 11 terrorism, but there appears to have been no reason for the FBI to make that connection.

So what are we to make of all this weirdness? I have three possible solutions:

  1. Moussaoui might have been a double-agent who had infiltrated the terrorist group and was working for some U. S. counterintelligence agency. This might explain his attempting to get arrested (an attempt to get out of the situation) and might explain the odd behaviour of Washington FBI in failing to obtain a FISA warrant. On the other hand, it is unlikely that they would be treating Moussaoui so badly if he had once worked for the U. S. government.

  2. The FBI and Department of Justice might have been in the middle of a sting operation to stop and arrest as many terrorists as possible. Right in the middle of this, bungling local FBI agents stumbled onto Moussaoui, detained him, and then wanted to rummage through his hard drive. Washington had no way of knowing what may have been on Moussaoui's hard drive, were afraid that information contained on it might have prejudiced the whole sting operation, and therefore intentionally stalled for time by delaying the warrant until the operation could be concluded. This might explain why the agent who stalled the warrant was promoted. Of course, the problem with such an operation is that you have to wait until the last possible moment to make the arrests, both to get the maximum amount of evidence to make the strongest possible charges stick, and to try to capture the leaders of the terrorist group. If you wait too long, or if you are intentionally misled by your spy in the group that the attack is to take place later than it actually occurs, tragedy ensues. At that point, the investigatory agency who has conducted the sting tries to sweep it under the rug to avoid the inevitable questions of why it didn't act in a timely manner and what was it doing playing with the lives of the victims by taking risks just to make the operation look better. There is good reason to believe that just this sort of thing happened in the first WTC attack in 1993, and I've long been of the belief that the Oklahoma City bombing was a similar situation, with the spy (who might have been the mysterious Andy Strassmeir or even Timothey McVeigh himself) misleading the authorities as to when the bombing was to take place.

  3. Some part of the United States government, perhaps in collusion with another government, might have been involved in the September 11 attack. The FBI would have been ordered to stall the FISA application in order to ensure that the operation was not stopped before September 11. There is at present no conclusive evidence that any part of the U. S. government was involved in September 11, but it is clear that many people close to the present administration have benefitted greatly from the terrorism, and so we have to keep this possibility in mind. I note that this possibility is not inconsistent with the previous one - a U. S. government counterterrorism sting operation might have been going on at the same time as some other part of the same government was actively involved in plotting the terrorism.