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The Trial of Moussaoui, the Fight Against Terrorism

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Joining us now by phone is Jamie Gorelick, who was a member of the 9/11 Commission. She's a Washington lawyer, she was a high-ranking official in both the Justice and Defense Departments in the Clinton administration. Welcome.

JAMIE GORELICK: I'm happy to be here.

SIEGEL: Zacarias Moussaoui confessed to being a 9/11 conspirator, so that's a legal fact. Based on your understanding, which you've devoted much of your life to in recent years, of what happened before and on 9/11, is it a historical fact that he was a 9/11 conspirator?

GORELICK: It depends on how you define the conspiracy. Clearly, he was training in some fashion to participate in doing harm to American citizens. He was taking training to learn how to fly, but not take off and land. He bought knives. He had some of the same characteristics as the other conspirators who actually participated in 9/11. On the other hand, he wasn't as far along or as far integrated into the plot, the actual plot of the day of 9/11 as the others who actually participated.

SIEGEL: So a peripheral conspirator perhaps, but the only one who's been, or perhaps the only one who will be prosecuted for all we know.

GORELICK: Yes. I mean, there remains ambiguity in this history, and I don't know that we will ever know. There is evidence that he was to be part of the 9/11 plot on the day of, and there's plenty of evidence also that he was not. But we do know that his intentions were terrible ones and that, had he been given the chance, he would have done just what the others did, in fact, do.

SIEGEL: What is your, what do you make of the jury's finding in the first part of the sentencing phase of his trial, that they proceeded to consider capital punishment because they accepted the government's theory that had Moussaoui not lied to federal investigators, murder would have been prevented. Some degree of terror would have been prevented on 9/11.

GORELICK: If the U.S. federal government had known what Moussaoui was, who we had in a holding cell in Minneapolis, and if that had been publicized, there is evidence that Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, who was the mastermind of the scheme, might have called it off. And certainly, certainly we would have been on the alert for people who were training as Moussaoui was. So if we had understood who Moussaoui was at the time, we might have well prevented 9/11.

SIEGEL: But there was an element of the Moussaoui trial that was a bit of 9/11 Commission redux in brief when the defense demonstrated how many things went wrong in the federal leadup to 9/11. Can you say with confidence that the same agencies that didn't pick up on this plot, in truth, would have picked up on it and would have acted effectively, if only Zacarias Moussaoui had answered their questions honestly?

GORELICK: You can't know for certain what would have happened. But when you listen to Agent Samit and his passionate effort to break through to his superiors within the FBI, you can't help but wonder if he had had more evidence whether he would have been more effective. Or if his superiors at Main Justice and the Attorney General had told the head of the FBI in Minneapolis about the terrible intelligence and the warnings we were getting, whether the two might have met up. It's just impossible to know. But at every stage, with each additional piece of evidence, you could have come closer to preventing the tragedy of 9/11.

SIEGEL: Thank you. That's Jamie Gorelick, who is a 9/11 commissioner. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.