The Case against Moussaoui: Internal Doubts: Evidence against the "20Th Hijacker" Mostly Circumstantial

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Isikoff

Attorney General John Ashcroft was about to announce the U.S. government's biggest legal victory yet in the war on terrorism last week--until events in an Alexandria, Va., courtroom brought the well-laid plans to an abrupt halt. Expecting Zacarias Moussaoui to plead guilty to charges of involvement in the 9-11 conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ashcroft aides were busily crafting a celebratory statement. The idea was for the A.G. to break off from a party dedicating a new Justice Department courtyard and then read the proclamation for the TV cameras--just in time for the network news.

But the erratic Moussaoui put a damper on the festivities when he suddenly withdrew his guilty plea after U.S. Judge Leonie Brinkema told him he had to admit direct participation in the 9-11 plot. This, Moussaoui said, he couldn't do because of his "obligation toward my creator, Allah." Now the case will go to trial Sept. 30. Justice officials say they are confident it won't change the outcome. "Our guys are ready to go," said one. But privately, some lawyers familiar with the evidence--including a few law-enforcement officials--are not so sure.

Brinkema last week appeared to adopt arguments submitted in secret by Moussaoui's court-appointed lawyers that merely showing Moussaoui was a member of Al Qaeda and wanted to harm Americans is not enough to convict.

Can the government make the case? Sources familiar with tens of thousands of classified FBI documents that have been assembled for the case tell NEWSWEEK there's nothing that shows Moussaoui ever had contact with any of the 9-11 hijackers. …