ALEXANDRIA, Va, Mar 23 (Reuters) If Zacarias Moussaoui had told authorities in August 2001 that a hijacking plot was under way in the United States, the FBI could have found records leading them to 11 of the September 11 hijackers, a former FBI official said today.
Aaron Zebley, a former FBI agent who now works as a federal prosecutor, testified in Moussaoui's sentencing trial that a major investigation would have been launched before the September 11 attacks if he had told about the plot when he was arrested in August 2001.
Zebley gave a detailed explanation of how the FBI could have gotten the names of 11 of the 19 hijackers by searching wire transfer and phone calling card records and by canvassing flight schools.
''You've got 11 different names. We could have set about finding them, of course, shared information with the intelligence community and ... federal law enforcement,'' said Zebley, adding that the FBI would have specifically warned the Federal Aviation Administration and the Secret Service.
Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyer, Edward MacMahon, disputed the overall premise that an investigation would have been launched, saying other warnings had been ignored by the FBI.
Moussaoui pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges last year.
He said he was not involved in the September 11 hijackings but was to take part in a second wave of attacks on the White House. He is on trial to see if he will receive the death penalty for his crimes.
Prosecutors are trying to prove that if Moussaoui, who was arrested three weeks before September 11 after raising suspicions at a flight school, had not lied to the FBI the attacks might have been thwarted by investigative work by the FBI and heightened security efforts by the FAA.
When he pleaded guilty last year, Moussaoui signed a statement of facts that said he knew of al Qaeda's plans to fly airplanes into buildings in the United States.
Zebley's testimony comes a day after a senior FAA official said that stricter security could have been put in place before Sept. 11 if officials had known of a potential plot to hijack airliners using small knives.
Zebley said the FBI would have used that knowledge, and other details in the statement of facts about receiving foreign wire transfers, to launch an investigation.
He said the wire transfer records would have led the FBI to phone numbers which could have been searched and eventually led to the discovery of 11 of the 19 hijackers' names, including all four pilots.
But defence attorney MacMahon said the FBI agent who had arrested Moussaoui on August. 16, 2001, had sent 70 messages to headquarters and other agents warning that he thought Moussaoui was a terrorist, but no one listened.
''The FBI needs a confession from a ...terrorist to start an investigation,'' MacMahon said heatedly, sparking an objection from the prosecution and leading the judge to call a lunch recess and urge attorneys on both sides to ''take a deep breath.'' Earlier this week, FBI agent Harry Samit said he had agency superiors had repeatedly blocked his efforts to warn of a terrorist attack, despite his suspicions of Moussaoui and his belief that a hijacking might be in the works.
Reuters DH VP0056