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FBI explains missing Moussaoui e-mail

Zacarias Mouusaoui
Zacarias Mouusaoui  

ALEXANDRIA, Virginia (CNN) -- The FBI admits it did not investigate the e-mail account used by accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui until after the September 11 attacks on America, although Moussaoui had been in federal custody a month before the attacks, and had a receipt showing he had rented access to the Internet,.

Responding to a judge's order to explain the failure to check Moussaoui's e-mail account -- -- prosecutors said in court papers filed Wednesday that the FBI did not know about the account until Moussaoui himself revealed it just six weeks ago.

Moussaoui, 34, a French citizen of Moroccan heritage, is defending himself against terrorism and hijacking conspiracy charges that could bring him the death penalty. The first person publicly charged in the United States in connection with September 11, Moussaoui had denied a role in the plot but admitted belonging to the Islamic militant group behind it, al Qaeda.

Moussaoui last logged onto the Internet for eight minutes at a Kinko's in Eagan, Minnesota, August 12, 2001, four days before his arrest on immigration charges, according to prosecutors. The store's practice is to erase data from its rentable computers on a daily basis, though some Kinko's locations take up to 30 days to do this.

Timeline: The case of Zacarias Moussaoui 
Superseding indictment, July 16, 2002: U.S. v. Moussaoui  (FindLaw documents, PDF format)
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Microsoft Network Hotmail erases users' account information after 30 days of inactivity and has no means of retrieving records of user activity 90 days after an account is dormant.

After that, "it is extremely difficult, if not impossible" to trace the usage of a Hotmail accounts unless a user has downloaded information, prosecutors said. "It was too late -- literally and figuratively -- to find the account," they said.

The FBI did not learn that Moussaoui had used a Kinko's computer until 44 days afterward, when they obtained a warrant to search his belongings and discovered the receipt. The FBI did not learn of the account Moussaoui alleges was his until he disclosed it in a motion filed with the court in July.

Moussaoui attended flight schools in Minnesota and Oklahoma last year, as did some of the 19 men who hijacked four airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing around 3,000 people.

"The FBI has discovered that the 19 hijackers also made use of Kinko's computers in other cities to gain access to the Internet," FBI Agent Bridget Lawler said in an affidavit.

The FBI did investigate Internet use by Moussaoui on computers belonging to his Norman, Oklahoma, roommate and at the University of Oklahoma, but found no trace of his e-mail on them.

Without any e-mail information downloaded and without Hotmail being able to verify usage, Lawler said, there was a minuscule chance of finding traces of Internet usage in a computer hard drive.

"If each piece of information that is on an average-sized hard disk drive was printed out in a standard piece of paper, the result would be equal to five stacks of paper each as tall as the Washington Monument," she said.

Lawler said that Hotmail does not verify subscriber information and what users provide is often false. For example, Moussaoui used the phony name "Zuluman Tangotango" to register another Hotmail account,, Lawler said.

Agents confirmed Moussaoui used that account to contact the two flight schools, according to a floppy disk seized along with Moussaoui's laptop at the hotel Moussaoui stayed at while briefly attending the Minnesota flight school. "The e-mail from that diskette has been examined and will be used at trial," prosecutors said.

Agents also checked e-mail service providers such as Yahoo, America Online, and Earthlink but found no records of Moussaoui using any of them.

"The FBI conducted an aggressive and responsible investigation into Moussaoui's computer and e-mail activity," prosecutors said. Besides Minnesota and Oklahoma, one place Moussaoui used his account was Malaysia, Lawler said

"We recovered no evidence of any e-mail account other than" the agent said.

Investigators also could not find any record of a third e-mail account,, mentioned by Moussaoui in an August motion.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who is presiding over the case, ordered the government to explain its investigation of Moussaoui's e-mail and computer activities. She also allowed Moussaoui to hire an information technology expert to inspect computers that he used to access his e-mail last year in Minnesota and Oklahoma

Due to the voluminous evidence in the case, which includes hundreds of computer discs and hard drives, Brinkema has agreed to a defense request to postpone Moussaoui's trial from this fall to next January.

-- By CNN's Phil Hirschkorn, New York Bureau




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