Wed Mar 22, 2006 8:39 PM ET
By Deborah Charles
ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (Reuters) – A senior U.S. aviation official said on Wednesday stricter security could have been put in place before September 11 if officials had known of a potential plot to hijack airliners using small knives.
But his testimony to the jury in the sentencing trial of Zacarias Moussaoui was not as authoritative as the prosecution might have hoped since the judge had barred officials that were closer to the intelligence from testifying.
Robert Cammaroto, who in 2001 was in charge of the Federal Aviation Administration’s group that issued security directives to warn of potential threats to aviation, was the first aviation security witness in the hearing to determine if Moussaoui will be executed.
The U.S. government has said aviation security-related testimony and evidence are a key element in their case against Moussaoui — the only person charged in the United States in connection with the September 11 attacks.
The prosecution is trying to prove that if Moussaoui had told the truth when he was arrested three weeks before September 11, 2001, the attacks could have been prevented. Moussaoui, an admitted al Qaeda member, says he was not involved in the hijackings but was to be part of a second wave of attacks.
Last week U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema threw out testimony and evidence from aviation witnesses after discovery that a government lawyer had improperly talked to them about the trial and attempted to coach them on their testimony.
Instead, Brinkema ordered prosecutors to find “untainted” witnesses to discuss aviation security.
When pressed about specific issues, Cammaroto pointed out that he was not involved in intelligence.
“I was not an intel analyst. I was an end user,” he said when asked if he had thought about al Qaeda’s “martyrdom” missions around the world when considering the threat to aviation in the United States before September 11.
One of the government’s key witnesses who was not permitted to testify was Claudio Manno, director of the FAA’s office of intelligence.
Cammaroto said if the FAA knew there was a possible hijacking plot that involved small knives, the agency could have implemented a number of measures to boost security.
He said more police could have been placed at security checkpoints, knives could have been banned from flights and more air marshals could have been deployed on domestic flights.
The FAA could also have warned airlines about a possible threat and ordered them to make sure the cockpit was secure.
Cammaroto said before September 11 he knew that al Qaeda had been involved in suicide bombings and knew there was a possibility of airplane hijackings, but he said there was not enough specific intelligence to take any action.