The sentencing trial that opens tomorrow for confessed Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui is expected to spotlight federal authorities' missed opportunities to disrupt the unfolding plot during the 26 days between the student pilot's arrest and the devastating attacks.
Prosecutors seeking the death penalty are preparing to tell the sentencing jury that Moussaoui bears direct responsibility for the attacks and deserves execution because he "lied to federal agents to allow his al-Qaeda `brothers' to go forward with the operation" after his arrest on Aug. 16, 2001.
But Moussaoui's court-appointed defense team is ready to urge the jury that the 37-year-old Moroccan-born French citizen should be spared execution because he knew far less about the plot than top officials in the Bush administration, including then-CIA Director George Tenet.
More than 80 prospective jurors are scheduled to report to US District Court here in suburban Washington, DC, tomorrow morning for the final phase of jury selection. The pool of candidates will be whittled down to 18 jurors and alternates, who will decide whether Moussaoui faces execution or life imprisonment without release.
Lawyers' opening arguments begin tomorrow afternoon in proceedings that stem from Moussaoui's surprise guilty plea last April 22 to six charges arising from the Sept. 11 plot, including three carrying the death penalty.
Moussaoui, the only person to face criminal charges in US courts in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, claims he had nothing to do with the plot and was sent to the US for a second-wave of suicide attacks that never occurred.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said defense lawyers will try to shift jurors' attention away from Moussaoui "and onto government officials' failure to stop the attacks" in hopes of staving off the death penalty.
"By the time jurors face a decision on punish-ment, the government may look a lot less competent about what it did to stop the attacks," Tobias said.
Moussaoui's defense team underscored its plans to focus attention on the federal government's pre-attack actions by subpoenaing testimony from US Representative Curt Weldon (Republican, Pennsylvania). The 10-term lawmaker investigated a super-secret Pentagon intelligence operation known as "Able Danger" that raised the possibility that US officials knew about the Sept. 11 plot before it was carried out.
US District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema last Thursday rejected defense lawyers' subpoena for Weldon, but granted defense lawyers' request for testimony by three specialists involved with the "Able Danger" program.
"What knowledge the government possessed before Sept. 11 regarding members of al-Qaeda, and specifically links between al-Qaeda and the eventual hijackers, is a key issue in dispute in this death penalty trial," Brinkema said in her written order.
It is unknown if Moussaoui's lawyers also subpoenaed high-ranking officials, such as Tenet or US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, because the court has sealed the list of witnesses.
But Moussaoui's defense lawyers can draw upon evidence of government missteps from the exhaustive findings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the US.
The commission found no direct link inside the US among Moussaoui and the 19 hijackers who commandeered four airliners to attack the World Trade Center and Pentagon and threaten a possible attack on the Capitol or the White House with a plane that crashed in western Pennsylvania.