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Friday, March 10, 2006

This just in from the courtroom

March 8, 2006

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The man the government presented as its FBI expert on Al Qaeda admitted in federal court Tuesday that no FBI agents had alerted him before Sept. 11, 2001, that Zacarias Moussaoui had been arrested in Minnesota trying to learn to fly jumbo jets just weeks before the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked.

That was one of several key elements about Sept. 11 and Al Qaeda that FBI Supervisory Agent Michael Anticev said he didn't know or was never informed about by other top law enforcement officials.


Asked a wide range of questions, many of them dealing with major Al Qaeda enterprises such as the attack on the U.S. destroyer Cole and a plot to blow up planes over the Pacific Ocean, Anticev often answered by saying merely, "I don't know … I've heard that … I guess so."

He was the government's first witness in the federal sentencing trial of Moussaoui, a French citizen facing a possible death sentence as a Sept. 11 collaborator.

Anticev was presented to the court as one of the bureau's top experts on Al Qaeda; he said he had honed the specialty since 1996 and eventually helped supervise other agents working on Al Qaeda squads.


McMahon asked Anticev about the Finsbury Park Mosque in England, a notorious meeting place for Moussaoui and other radical Muslims and a recruitment center for Al Qaeda.

"I have very limited knowledge on that," he said.

MacMahon asked Anticev about Abu Hamza al Masri, the virulent anti-American cleric at the mosque, who long has been sought in this country on terrorism-related charges.

"I really don't know too much about him," Anticev said. "I know he's a very radical fundamentalist imam who was inspiring jihad."

On the question of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed being apprehended and said to be the Sept. 11 mastermind, an event that many Bush administration sources have described, Anticev responded: "Well, I know from the media that he is in some kind of custody."

Al Qaeda Expert Offers Few Details at Moussaoui Trial
Richard A. Serrano, Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2006

Serrano's is a pretty colorful account of the Moussaoui trial, definitely worth a read. No, it does not exclusively consist of FBI-bashing:

The government's second witness, FBI Agent Jim Fitzgerald, one of two case agents on the Moussaoui case, described the work of the Sept. 11 investigation set up after the terrorist attacks.

In contrast to Anticev, Fitzgerald was crisp and sharp on the stand, speaking without notes as he led the jury through a comprehensive chronicle of the 19 hijackers' travels to America and described them as working in pairs until their final assignments.

He also testified that they often acted in this country just as Moussaoui did.

For instance, Fitzgerald said, many set up post office boxes and e-mail accounts and took fitness training. They bought small knives and took flight lessons. They generally used their own names.

Agent Fitzgerald - who, it would seem, was not presented as a top-notch expert - appears professional, confident and honest:
... he admitted that even though Moussaoui emulated the hijackers, there was no evidence he ever met or spoke with any of the 19.

"Sir, I cannot put him with them," Fitzgerald told the defense lawyer.

But let us take another look at Supervisory Agent Michael Anticev who it would be my guess was meant to be a witness with a clout, maybe even a star witness. With my characteristic lack of modesty allow me to state that my Al Quaeda expertise likely exceeds his. Unless he posseses some kind of special expertise such as knowledge of Arabic or other relevant languages, that is - but if he possesed that sort of knowledge it would be even more surprising that he knows so little about the subject, that he hasn't, for instance, read any of Abu Hamza al Masri's sermons. I would if I were to testify in the trial of a man whose alleged crimes were likely inspired by those sermons. All I've got, of course, is anecdotal reports, but it still leads me to believe that most likely Anticev posseses no special linguistic skills, no special knowledge of relevant culture and history and his overall knowledge of the subject is not even at the level of somebody who as a layman would simply do some reading on the subject. Unfortunately that sort of apparent incompetence when it comes to counterterrorism is not that different from what is being reported from Guantanamo and elsewhere.

Regardless of how knowledgeable Anticev is of Al Qaeda in general, it is unlikely his knowledge and expertise would have made any difference in preventing 9/11 as he was not even informed of Moussaoui's arrest. And even had Moussaoui told investigators that he planned to participate in what would become the 9/11 it is far from certain that any one from the top-level leadership of the security services would have listened to him any more than they did to Coleen Rowley who happened to be an FBI agent and who, along with a number of colleagues, suspected that Moussaoui did in fact intend to perpetrate something akin to what the government now acuses him of keeping mum about.

So, was it a crime for Moussaoui to keep silent about a terrorist attack that he knew was in the works - in case he actually knew about it which is not proven? Maybe. Does it amount to direct participation? That's questionable but possibly so. What do we know beyond a reasonable doubt? I would say, not very much: we know that Moussaoui trained to be a suicide pilot and was a member of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group.

That may not be much but that is surely enough to lock him up for a long time, possibly for life. But the government is definitely trying hard to execute him. I don't have much sympathy for him and despite my general opposition to the death penalty don't particularly care if he dies in an execution chamber. Except for one thing - this is somewhat akin to the way the case of Timothy McVeigh was handled. Up to his very execution the government seemed to be doing all it could and then some to see to it that McVeigh does not draw one more breath than absolutely necessary; and as we now know there may have been reasons for that other than the rightful indignation - namely, that those involved in the coverup of the Oklahoma City bombing could well have had significant interest in making sure that McVeigh is permanently silenced. Could something similar be at play here with Moussaoui?

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