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Prosecutors as Therapists, Phantoms as Terrorists


Federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Virginia have been acting as surrogate therapists to scores of families of the September 11 terrorist attacks. As soon as Zacarias Moussaoui was indicted in Alexandria, prosecutors ramped up a staff of assistant U.S. attorneys–more than 60 in all–all across the country to help them stage the drama of the families’ losses.

The families were chosen carefully. Who would make the best poster children for their prosecution? They have spent thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars developing their testimony and planning for a rousing therapeutic catharsis at the trial of the case.

But the trial may never be. For Judge Leonie Brinkema has seen the evidence the government has against Moussaoui and it does not connect him to the September 11 attacks. Thus, she said, the government cannot seek the death penalty against him. It seems that this failure to have the rudiments of a capital case, more than the government’s refusal to abide by her order to produce exculpatory witnesses for Moussaoui and his lawyers to question, is the reason for her waving prosecutors off the death penalty.

The government is appealing this order (as they appeal every other court mandate that they cannot “in good conscience” follow). And while they await the decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals about granting their appeal, they are proceeding at a furious pace to continue to prepare the witnesses for their gruesome testimony.

A friend I discussed this with this week suggested that the prosecutors were continuing to prepare for what may never be in order to bolster their plea for the trial to continue. “Sunk costs,” he called it. You see, he said, they will argue, we have done so much to get ready for the trial, the families have been through so much to get ready, they simply must tell their story. Sound familiar? Like, forget how we got into Iraq, we need $87 billion now to continue the job. We can’t quit now.

Further, someone must pay for September 11. Whether Moussaoui had anything to do with it or not, he is the one the government has chosen as the scapegoat. You can’t blame the administration, can you? With Osama and Saddam on the loose, someone has to take the fall. With not one of the thousands of immigrants rounded up for questioning after September 11 panning out as plotters, they needed a whipping boy.

Whether “rightly or wrongly,” Alexandria U.S. Attorney Paul McNulty is reported as saying, people have put a lot of hope in the case against Moussaoui as the one who must pay for September 11.

I thought that was what the war in Afghanistan was about. Then the war in Iraq. Now with the Moussaoui case unraveling, who will the government look to next to shoulder the blame for the deaths of 3000 Americans? An independent panel would like to know who is responsible, but the White House has been stonewalling. The panel this week threatened subpoenas. White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan says the administration “wants” to cooperate, but “we are dealing with sensitive documents here.” Like the “sensitive” documents that said there were WMD’s in Iraq?

In the meantime, the “masters of fiction,” as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen calls Bush and Cheney, continue to spin their tales and, doubtless, look for someone or something to blame for September 11–just as they look for some entity to blame for the mess they have made in Iraq.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teachers law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. She can be reached at:


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