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Officials Skeptical as Detainees Say Sept. 11 Was First in a Trio

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Sept. 11 attacks may have been planned as the first of three terrorist strikes in the United States, each progressively bigger and more devastating than the last, U.S. officials said Monday, citing recent interviews with captured Al Qaeda operatives.

Two U.S. officials said the information comes from several sources, including detainees at Guantanamo Bay. But they stressed that it has not been corroborated and that the sources may be unreliable or purposefully deceptive.

“We’ve heard it from more than one source,” one of the U.S. officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The national security [investigators], of course, are thinking chemical, biological and nuclear [attacks].... It’s pretty chilling stuff, but we don’t have all the information.”

Meanwhile, the trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person charged in the United States in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks, was postponed from January until June after Moussaoui and his standby legal team complained about the overwhelming amount of materials he has to examine and the recent disruption of his trial preparation.

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U.S. marshals conducted several lengthy searches of Moussaoui’s cell and an adjoining work room to recover several dozen classified documents that the Justice Department inadvertently handed over to him among hundreds of thousands of pages of discovery materials. Justice Department officials said they believed Moussaoui did not read any of the classified materials, which were in stacks of other documents and not marked as classified.

In postponing the trial, U. S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema said Moussaoui could never get through all of the government documents provided to him by the scheduled trial date of Jan. 6, and that the recent government searches also took away time from his efforts to act as his own lawyer and prepare his defense.

“Although this is the second continuance sought in this case, the court finds that all parties have demonstrated compelling reasons for justifying an extensive continuance of pretrial and trial proceedings which outweigh the interests of the public and the defendant in a speedy trial,” Brinkema wrote.

Failure to delay the trial, she added, “could result in a miscarriage of justice and would not provide all the parties a sufficient opportunity to adequately prepare for a trial.”

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Brinkema also ordered that Moussaoui be given a bigger cell after he complained that the rooms were too small to hold all of the paperwork, computer disks and videotapes. The documents have been provided to Moussaoui--who is being held in solitary confinement--because he is acting as his own lawyer, although he has a court-appointed team of defense lawyers standing by.

Moussaoui’s cell was so packed with court documents that some were piled high on the toilet, said one person familiar with his incarceration. “It was not a good situation,” said the source. “My understanding is that it is piled floor to ceiling and that if some of it fell, it would bury him.”

Brinkema agreed, describing the tiny, windowless space as being both “inhumane and an unreasonable barrier to his ability to work with the materials produced to him.”

Moussaoui, a 34-year-old Frenchman of Moroccan descent, has been charged with six counts of conspiracy, four of which carry the death penalty. He has denied playing any role in the hijackings but has admitted to being a member of Al Qaeda and has called publicly for the destruction of the United States and Jews.

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Moussaoui, whose court filings are often filled with colorful language, had filed a “Motion to Get a Bigger Cave to Prepare the WTC (World Top Circus)"--an apparent reference to the World Trade Center, described in some court documents as the WTC. His motion for a delay in the trial was titled, “Motion to Get Time Out Added in the Dirty Game of U.S.”

The second postponement is unusual for the Eastern District of Virginia, which is known as the “rocket docket” for its speedy trials.

Since Moussaoui’s indictment late last year, the Justice Department has pressed for an early court date and opposed two previous motions by Moussaoui and his defense team for continuances in the case. One of those requests was granted in August, and the trial date was pushed back from its initial September date.

Brinkema set May 27 for the start of jury selection and June 30 as the first day of trial.

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Federal prosecutors in the Moussaoui case also released more information about a mysterious phone number they said connected Moussaoui to one of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks. Last week, the prosecutors alleged the link by saying that hijacker Ziad Samir Jarrah had a business card on him with a phone number that had been called by Moussaoui. Jarrah is believed to have been the pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after some passengers confronted the hijackers.

Moussaoui’s defense team, in a court motion, sought more information about the alleged link, calling it a “thin reed” at best. On Monday, Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said the charred business card recovered in a Pennsylvania field also had an address on the back, and that both the address and phone number were used by Ramzi Binalshibh, a man authorities say was meant to be the 20th hijacker before he was kept out of the country. Binalshibh later wired money to Moussaoui and tried to help him take his place on a plane, some authorities have alleged.

“Thus the connection between defendant Moussaoui and Jarrah is far more than a ‘thin reed’ as argued by standby counsel,” McNulty wrote. “The connection is Binalshibh.”

Authorities on Monday also expressed caution about the recent disclosures by some Al Qaeda prisoners warning of more major terrorist attacks. Since days after Sept. 11, authorities have said they were concerned about a possible “second wave” of attacks.

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The indications that there might be at least two other major attacks in the works is being aggressively investigated, authorities said.

“It is serious but the attitude is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ ” said one official. “If there was anything of a huge scale, bigger than Sept. 11, in the pipeline, we think we would have been given a clearer picture, that somebody would have said something.”

“You can’t dismiss it out of hand,” added a second U.S. official, “but it would be wrong to attach too much significance to comments along those lines because they are not corroborated.”


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