ALEXANDRIA, Va._Two of the pilot-hijackers from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks abandoned a small airplane on a taxiway of Miami International Airport during their flight training, but their actions didn't attract serious scrutiny from federal officials, a witness in the Zacarias Moussaoui trial said Wednesday.
A flight instructor at the school where Sept. 11 hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi received commercial pilot training testified at the death-penalty trial of Moussaoui, who has confessed to being an al-Qaida terrorist.
Instructor Daniel Pursell testified that instructors at the school breathed "a collective sigh of relief" when Atta and al-Shehhi completed their training and left the school.
Pursell said that the Dec. 26, 2000, incident at the Miami airport was one of several problems the school had with the pair.
Pursell said the Federal Aviation Administration called the Florida school to berate school officials after the plane was left on the runway, but he said the FAA never questioned Atta and al-Shehhi.
Prosecutors were presenting testimony about the Sept. 11 pilot-hijackers' training in an apparent effort to show parallels between Moussaoui's flight training and that of the other hijackers.
During testimony Tuesday, a terrorism supervisor in FBI headquarters dismissed a field agent's concerns about Moussaoui in the weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, as "hunches and suppositions."
The supervisor, Michael Rolince, testified that he had not even read an Aug. 18, 2001, memo written by Minneapolis agent Harry Samit, who arrested Moussaoui and was convinced from the outset that Moussaoui was a terrorist with plans to hijack aircraft.
Rolince, who headed the FBI's International Terrorism Operations section, said he was briefed on Moussaoui only twice by a subordinate in hallway conversations lasting less than a minute.
Rolince concluded that the bureau had a long way to go in building a case against Moussaoui, even though Samit had laid out in a nearly 30-page memo his reasons for believing that the bureau had built a sufficient case to launch an all-out investigation and obtain a search warrant for Moussaoui's possessions.
"What Agent Samit's hunches and suppositions were is one thing," Rolince said. "What we knew was clearly something else."
Samit's memo proved prescient. He correctly predicted two of the six specific charges to which Moussaoui pleaded guilty: plotting international terrorism and air piracy.
Moussaoui is the only person in this country charged in connection with the Sept. 11 attacks. He pleaded guilty to conspiring with al-Qaida to hijack aircraft and other crimes, but he denies any role in Sept. 11. He says he was preparing for a possible future attack on the White House.
The sentencing trial now under way will determine Moussaoui's punishment: death or life in prison.
The FBI's actions in the time between Moussaoui's Aug. 16, 2001, arrest on immigration violations and Sept. 11, 2001, are key issues at Moussaoui's death-penalty trial. Prosecutors allege that if Moussaoui had revealed his plans for a terrorist attack, the FBI could have thwarted or at least minimized the attacks. To obtain a death penalty, prosecutors must prove that Moussaoui's actions caused the death of at least one person on Sept. 11.
The defense argues that nothing Moussaoui said after his arrest would have made any difference to the FBI because its bureaucratic intransigence rendered it incapable of reacting swiftly to Moussaoui's arrest under any circumstances.
U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema limited the scope of Rolince's testimony after the defense objected that he was trying to describe what the FBI would have done if it had known about Moussaoui's terrorist ties.
The defense argued that speculative testimony based on a hypothetical confession by Moussaoui unfairly implied that Moussaoui had some obligation to confess.
Brinkema allowed some limited hypothetical questioning but advised the jury: "Juries cannot decide cases on speculation. ... Nobody knows what would have happened."