Skip to comments.Judge Releases Transcripts in Sept. 11 Fake IDs Case
Posted on 06/24/2003 3:47:29 PM PDT by Jean S
PATERSON, N.J. (AP) - Secret evidence presented in a closed court session alleged that a man who sold fake IDs to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers had closer ties to terrorism than previously revealed, according to transcripts released Tuesday.
In the end, authorities found no evidence to bring terrorism charges against Mohamad El-Atriss, and U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie said Tuesday that El-Atriss "is not considered a threat to national security by us."
In a plea bargain, El-Atriss was sentenced in March to five years' probation and fined $15,000 for selling phony documents.
El-Atriss and his lawyer on Tuesday disputed any inference that he had ties to terrorism. They said the information brought forward in the secret hearings, which they were not permitted to attend, was pure hearsay.
The transcripts indicate investigators from the Passaic County Sheriff's Department and the prosecutor's office believed El-Atriss was a serious danger to the community and should be held on a higher bail.
Among the allegations made in the secret sessions was that El-Atriss, 46, was part owner of a business with ties to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and that his partner was classified by the FBI as a terrorist.
In the secret sessions, Detective Sgt. Fred Ernst testified that the location of the business, Sphinx Trading Co., was where Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman received his mail. The blind Egyptian cleric is serving a life sentence for plotting to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks, and his followers were convicted of the planting the trade center bomb.
"It was also indicated to me by the FBI that several of the hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 event also had mailboxes at that location," Ernst testified at a November hearing in which El-Atriss' bail was doubled to $500,000.
El-Atriss said Tuesday he was one of two people who incorporated Sphinx Trading in 1987, but within days decided not to go into business with the partner and had nothing to do with it afterward.
"I am very sad that I was held for six months based on this kind of information. They are labeling me as a terrorist and I had nothing to do with it. How can I prove that?" he said.
His lawyer, Miles Feinstein, said none of the testimony given in secret came from witnesses with firsthand knowledge of what they were alleging.
"What you have is sketchiness, possibility, unrelated inference upon unrelated inference," Feinstein said.
Prosecutors sought the secret hearing, saying the release of evidence could jeopardize national security.
El-Atriss admitted selling fake documents to Khalid Almihdhar, who was on the airliner that crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and Abdulaziz Alomari, who was aboard one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center. However, he stressed that he had no idea who they were or what they had in mind.
There also were allegations that El-Atriss had contact with other hijackers. One claim was that Hani Hanjour, who piloted the plane that struck the Pentagon, had made seven calls to El-Atriss from a prepaid cell phone before Sept. 11.
Feinstein said the calls from Hanjour involved him asking when documents for two men would be ready.
Authorities also testified that El-Atriss downloaded a list of the 19 hijackers from an Internet site on Sept. 15, 2001, underlining 12 of the 19 names. El-Atriss said he does not recall ever doing that.
Investigators also said they found correspondence between El-Atriss and an aviation company regarding parts and equipment for airplanes, including possibly commercial jetliners. El-Atriss said he was inquiring about equipment for an associate in Egypt.
Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale said his office, which raided El-Atriss' store last July, "took appropriate action consistent with the information available. The transcripts speak for themselves."
The Star-Ledger of Newark, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Record of Bergen County, the Herald News of West Paterson and the New Jersey Law Journal sued for the release of transcripts.
A judge agreed on June 4 to release the transcripts, ruling against the defense, which said releasing the information would hurt El-Atriss' reputation by unfairly linking him to terrorism.