Witness Lists FAA Measures Available for a Pre-9/11 Tip
A week after their case nearly imploded amid allegations of witness tampering, federal prosecutors began introducing aviation testimony Wednesday in Zacarias Moussaoui’s sentencing trial, hoping to prove that had he cooperated, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could have been prevented.
Their first witness was Robert Cammaroto, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial airports policy division at the time of the attacks. He was allowed to testify on a limited basis after revelations last week that a Transportation Security Administration lawyer had improperly coached other federal aviation witnesses on their testimony.
Cammaroto listed security measures that could have been implemented had Moussaoui cooperated with the FBI after he was arrested in Minnesota for visa violations on Aug. 16, 2001.
For two hours, prosecutors methodically walked Cammaroto through his testimony. He told the court how the government could have responded to the Sept. 11 threat, and he offered new details on how the Federal Aviation Administration beefed up security when, in 1995, it was learned that Muslim extremists were plotting to blow up a dozen U.S. airliners over the Pacific Ocean.
Cammaroto spoke with authority and the experience of 25 years in the government security field -- starting as an air traffic controller, moving on to become a federal air marshal and rising to a post as one of the FAA’s top law enforcement officials.
Asked by Assistant U.S. Atty. David J. Novak how swiftly airport security officials would have reacted had Moussaoui revealed that the Sept. 11 hijackers planned to smuggle small knives aboard planes and then commandeer the cockpits, Cammaroto said:
“It could have been done fairly quickly. In a matter of hours.”
But under cross-examination by defense lawyer Gerald T. Zerkin, Cammaroto conceded that in the late summer of 2001, the approach to airport security was far more relaxed than it is today.
Few people envisioned planes being hijacked on suicide missions, he said, and airport gate screening operations were less stringent. Passengers often were permitted to carry aboard such items as folding knives, bottles, screwdrivers and knitting needles.
Indeed, shown a security video of some of the Sept. 11 hijackers easily passing through checkpoints at Washington Dulles International Airport that morning, Cammaroto noted that only seven of the 19 had even been sent to a secondary screening, and none had been denied a seat.
“It seemed an act of desperation to blow yourself up” back then, Cammaroto said.
In the past, he said, hijackings mainly involved planes’ diversion to Cuba or ransom demands. “We’d never had an incident where the bomber rode the bomb,” he said.
The aviation testimony and evidence are central to the government’s argument for executing Moussaoui. Prosecutors seek to convince the jury that Moussaoui knew enough about the Sept. 11 plot to help stop it.
But Moussaoui lied to the FBI and then refused to cooperate, sharply dividing the FBI about what to do with him.
The FBI never sought search warrants to open his belongings and learn more about why he was training on jumbo jet simulators in Minnesota.
The defense maintains that Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty to being a Sept. 11 conspirator last April, was a lone operator and never had any direct role or knowledge that four planes were going to be boarded that day, three of which reached targets in New York and Virginia.
With Moussaoui’s survival at stake, the government’s case nearly fell apart last week when it was discovered that TSA senior attorney Carla J. Martin had improperly influenced seven TSA and FAA witnesses for the government. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema sharply limited the government’s aviation testimony and evidence to just one or two witnesses, making Cammaroto’s testimony all the more crucial.
The judge has yet to call Martin into the courtroom to explain her conduct.
Cammaroto described half a dozen security steps the FAA could have taken to try to head off the attacks. He said more officers could have been posted immediately at airport checkpoints, and small knives and other potential weapons could have been confiscated at the gates.
He said planes could have been searched before boarding to make sure previous passengers had not hidden bombs or weapons in overhead baggage bins or in lavatories.
Cammaroto said flight crews could have been warned to keep cockpit doors secure, and new no-fly lists could have been posted to stop the 19 hijackers from boarding planes.
“We could have done much of this in the course of a couple of hours,” he said.
He drew a parallel with the “Bojinka” plot, uncovered in 1995 in Manila, in which radical Islamists planned to hide liquid bombs on 12 U.S. planes and detonate them over the Pacific.
Just as they could have done to thwart the Sept. 11 conspiracy, Cammaroto said, officials alerted the airlines about the Bojinka conspiracy, stopped passengers from carrying open drink containers aboard, and sent bomb-sniffing dogs to the Philippines. More thorough pat-downs and other passenger searches also were initiated.
“As our intelligence improved, we were able to refine and refine and refine until we got closer to the mark,” he said.
In the end, there were no attacks.