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9/11 Hearings Cloud Terrorist Suspect's Trial

Courts: There's fear that surprise disclosures before Congress could taint the proceeding.

September 12, 2002|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The judge and lawyers in the upcoming trial of Zacarias Moussaoui fear that public congressional hearings planned for next week on intelligence failures of Sept. 11 might provide surprise disclosures or testimony that could affect the trial or give Moussaoui significant grounds for appeal.

The last prominent defendant to benefit from high-profile congressional hearings was Oliver L. North, who testified before Congress on the Iran-Contra scandal, then later was indicted and convicted of three felonies. His conviction subsequently was overturned and the case was dismissed after an appeals court ruled that his congressional testimony tainted the trial.

This time, the House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting a joint inquiry into why the American intelligence community didn't learn of the attacks in advance, and what can be done to prevent breaches in the future.

In February, the joint committee began requesting--and receiving--tens of thousands of pages of documents from the FBI, the CIA and other federal agencies and conducting hundreds of interviews with members of those agencies. The committee plans to begin public hearings Wednesday, a spokesman said.

Moussaoui, 34, was indicted in December on six counts of conspiring to participate in the Sept. 11 attacks. Jury selection in Alexandria, Va., is scheduled to begin Nov. 18. Moussaoui is representing himself.

His standby attorneys have told U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema that the hearings almost certainly will involve Moussaoui, since he was arrested weeks before the hijackings. The defense team is both aghast at the possibility of nationally televised condemnations of Moussaoui shortly before a jury is picked and hopeful the process will give the defense openings to attack witnesses or argue that the trial has been irreparably prejudiced.

"I think this is going to be a real mess," said Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel in the Iran-Contra affair.

"If nothing else happens, it makes it hard to get an impartial jury if Congress is going to spill this stuff all over the front pages on the eve of trial," he said.

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