A former FBI agent testified Thursday that investigators may have been able track down some of the September 11 hijackers if Zacarias Moussaoui had confessed his role with al-Qaida before the 2001 attacks. Moussaoui is the convicted al-Qaida terrorist now on trial for his life in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, just outside Washington.
Former FBI agent Aaron Zebley testified that had Moussaoui confessed his links with al-Qaida before the 9/11 attacks, the authorities might have been able to trace money transfers and telephone calls to al-Qaida financiers who were in touch with some of those who hijacked airliners on September 11.
Zebley said it was possible that the FBI could have traced a $14,000 wire transfer to Moussaoui that came from Germany, which might have led to financial backers also in contact with at least five of the 19 hijackers.
Prosecutors argue that Moussaoui should be put to death because he withheld information from investigators after his arrest in Minnesota three weeks before the 9/11 attacks.
Defense lawyers contend the FBI and other U.S. government agencies would not have been able to do much to prevent the attacks even if Moussaoui had admitted earlier that he was an al-Qaida operative.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the government has learned a lot of lessons from the 9/11 attacks, including how to respond more quickly to threat information gathered by agents in the field.
"I am not going to comment on anything related to the trial," Gonzales says. "What I will say is that we obviously are more sensitive today about threats to the United States and we believe that we have better procedures, better infrastructure to share information."
Moussaoui pleaded guilty last year to terror and conspiracy charges. He said he was not part of the 9/11 conspiracy but was planning to be part of a second wave of attacks using planes that were to go after other high-profile targets, including the White House.
The jury in the case has two choices. Either sentence Moussaoui to death or send him to prison for life.