Zacarias Moussaoui had dreams about flying an airplane into the White House, but his associates in the Al Qaeda terrorist network considered him "cuckoo" and never took him seriously, his defense attorneys said in legal papers released Friday.
Lawyers for Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker," used that anecdote to bolster their contention that while the only person charged in the Sept. 11 attacks may be a self-avowed member of Al Qaeda, the terrorist organization never considered him competent to help carry out the devastating strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Defense lawyers filed the legal papers Nov. 14 with the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., but they were not made public until Friday.
Prosecutors are asking the appellate court to overturn an order by a federal judge that bars any evidence about Sept. 11 from Moussaoui's trial and strikes the death penalty as a possible punishment.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema made that ruling after the government refused to allow Moussaoui access to other alleged terrorists in custody. The judge found that the government's denial would prohibit Moussaoui from getting a fair trial.
Defense lawyers want to talk to the captives in an effort to find testimony and evidence showing that Moussaoui was never considered reliable enough to participate in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But prosecutors, in appealing Brinkema's ruling, insist that making other captives available to Moussaoui would be a setback for the government's war on terrorism and would permit captured terrorists to make a mockery of the U.S. court system.
Defense lawyers said reports from the government in the case already "make it clear that Moussaoui was not a part of the Sept. 11 operation." They also said that while he has "admitted that he is a member of Al Qaeda," he now denies any role in the trade center and Pentagon attacks.
Moussaoui was detained in Minnesota a month before the Sept. 11 attacks, after a flight instructor became suspicious about his behavior. Before moving to the United States, he had lived in Malaysia and associated with other Al Qaeda members there.
"While in Malaysia," the defense lawyers said, "Moussaoui was convinced that the residence where he was staying was 'bugged.'
"Accordingly, he insisted on going outside to talk about Al Qaeda business that he thought needed to be kept secret. However, there is testimony that he talked freely about a dream he had of flying a plane into the White House inside the house he thought was bugged."
Moussaoui's attorneys, led by Frank W. Dunham Jr., the federal public defender in Alexandria, said a witness who overheard Moussaoui "did not think Moussaoui was being serious." In addition, the defense cited an Al Qaeda "operative" who said in a government deposition that he "thought Moussaoui was 'cuckoo.' "
Not long after he was indicted in the Sept. 11 attacks, Moussaoui tried unsuccessfully to plead guilty. But defense lawyers suggested Friday that he was only pretending then to be a Sept. 11 participant, based on knowledge he gleaned "from news accounts, the indictment and substantial discovery material in the case."
Moussaoui has since been barred from representing himself in court. Oral arguments in the appeal have been set for Dec. 3 in Richmond, and the case has continued to grow more complex.
The defense lawyers noted that the case docket already is 143 pages long, that there are 1,083 pleadings or other documents filed in the case and that Brinkema has issued about 350 written orders and considered some 400 pleadings.
Further, the lawyers said, there have been three arraignments, Moussaoui's "failed attempt to enter a guilty plea" and two depositions in the courtroom.
One of those depositions, they said, involved Faiz Abu Bakar Bafana, a Malaysian in U.S. custody who was questioned from "an undisclosed location in Singapore" with "Moussaoui participating by remote access from the courtroom."
Much of Friday's 120-page legal filing by the defense is redacted for national security purposes, so it remained unclear exactly what Bafana said.
Bafana has been described as a top leader in the Jemaah Islamiah terror network in Southeast Asia. He has been identified as being heavily involved in an alleged plot to bomb the U.S. embassy in Singapore.