ALEXANDRIA, VA. — ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- A week after their case to gain the death penalty for Zacarias Moussaoui nearly imploded amid allegations of witness tampering, federal prosecutors began introducing aviation testimony and evidence yesterday in an effort to prove in his sentencing trial that the Sept. 11 attacks could have been prevented.
Their first witness was a top Transportation Security Administration executive who was allowed to testify only on a limited basis in the wake of revelations that a lawyer from his agency had improperly coached other federal aviation witnesses on their testimony.
Robert Cammaroto, chief of the TSA's commercial airports policy division, listed security measures that could have been implemented had Moussaoui cooperated with the FBI after he was arrested in Minnesota for visa violations on Aug. 16, 2001.
For two hours, prosecutors methodically walked Cammaroto through his testimony. He told the court how the government could have responded to the Sept. 11 threat, and offered new details on how the Federal Aviation Administration beefed up security when it was learned that Muslim extremists were plotting to blow up a dozen U.S. airliners over the Pacific Ocean in 1995.
Cammaroto has 25 years' experience in the government security field, beginning as an air traffic controller, becoming a federal air marshal and eventually one of the TSA's top law enforcement officials.
Asked by Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Novak how swiftly airport security officials would have reacted had Moussaoui revealed that the Sept. 11 hijackers planned to smuggle small knives aboard planes and commandeer the cockpits, Cammaroto said: "It could have been done fairly quickly. In a matter of hours."
But under cross-examination by defense lawyer Gerald Thomas Zerkin, Cammaroto conceded that in the late summer of 2001, the approach to airport security was far more relaxed than it is today.
Few people envisioned planes being hijacked on suicide missions, he said, and airport gate screening operations were less stringent. Passengers often were allowed to carry aboard items such as folding knives, bottles, screwdrivers and knitting needles.
Shown a security video of some of the Sept. 11 hijackers easily passing through checkpoints at Washington-Dulles International Airport that morning, Cammaroto pointed out that only seven of the 19 hijackers who boarded the four planes on the East Coast were sent to a secondary screening - and none was denied a seat.
"It seemed an act of desperation to blow yourself up" on a suicide mission back then, Cammaroto said.
In the past, he said, hijackings mainly involved the diversion of planes to Cuba or demands by saboteurs for ransom.
"We'd never had an incident where the bomber rode the bomb," he said.
The aviation testimony and evidence are central to the government's argument for sentencing Moussaoui to death. Prosecutors are trying to convince the jury that Moussaoui knew enough about the Sept. 11 plot to help them stop it.
Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.