Eight media organizations asked a federal court yesterday to unseal portions of papers filed by Zacarias Moussaoui, who is charged with conspiring with the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The motion, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., challenges the court's Aug. 29 ruling, which placed a seal on filings by Moussaoui that include "threats, racial slurs, calls to action or other irrelevant and inappropriate language."
In that ruling, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema agreed with government prosecutors that Moussaoui, who has unleashed a stream of handwritten pleadings that contain religious sayings and angry rhetoric, is trying to use the court as a public platform - perhaps to send messages to co-conspirators.
The blanket seal on Moussaoui's filings "does not strike the correct balance between the government's legitimate law enforcement/security interests and the public's First Amendment and common law rights of access to judicial records," according to the motion filed by Tribune Co. - which owns The Sun - and ABC Inc., the Associated Press, Cable News Network, CBS Broadcasting Inc., The Washington Post, USA Today and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Yesterday, the court ordered the government, Moussaoui and the court-appointed lawyers he fired in June to file any responses by Thursday. If the judge determines that a hearing is necessary, one will be scheduled next week. A Department of Justice spokesman said yesterday that the government would not comment on the issue before filing its official response.
The media organizations want the court to release Moussaoui papers already sealed within 10 business days - or in the case of those filed in the future, within 10 days of the filing - unless the court concludes there are compelling reasons to seal specific portions, and then do so under written order with explanation.
The Aug. 29 order violates the public's legal right to access to judicial records by sealing the documents in entirety without attempting to separate portions that pose a threat to national security from those that do not, the motion argues.
The motion also says the court was incorrect in declining Moussaoui's request to have his pleadings redacted, or edited, if the court believed they could not be made public in their entirety. Brinkema had said editing the pleadings would be too great a burden on the court and the government.
Moussaoui, 34, a French citizen of Moroccan descent, is the only person charged in the Sept. 11 attacks. He is charged with conspiracy to commit acts of terrorism, to commit aircraft piracy, to destroy aircraft, to use airplanes as weapons of mass destruction, and to murder government employees and destroy property. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty at his trial, which is scheduled for January. Moussaoui has said he was a member of al-Qaida and loyal to the organization's leader, Osama bin Laden, but was not a participant in the Sept. 11 plot.
As a suspected terrorism conspirator, he is under severe restrictions that allow prison officials to almost completely cut off his communications. He is prohibited from seeing anyone except his lawyers and family.
But by acting as his defense attorney, Moussaoui has gained access to a global stage, a situation that has "gutted" the special measures to silence him, say prosecutors, who believe he is producing the pleadings to send messages to co-conspirators or sympathizers or to make political statements.
Since June, when he was granted the right to represent himself, he has filed more than 125 handwritten motions - laced with a mix of playful, angry and threatening rhetoric.
He has headed the documents with such titles as "Zacarias Moussaoui, Muslim vs. US, godless government" or "US Pagan Gov." He has ranted against Brinkema, calling her "the death judge," or just "D.J," and labeled one motion "the Leonie Brinkema Travesty of Justice Trial." He has offered to "perform euthanasia" on a court-appointed lawyer and called for U.S. troops to leave the Arabian Peninsula in "body bags."