WASHINGTON — In a private ceremony at the State Department Thursday, Clarence Prevost, a Minnesota flight instructor, was presented with a $5 million check for flagging suspicious behavior by al Qaida operative Zacarias Moussaoui, who was learning to fly a jumbo jet before the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Two other former employees of the Pan American International Flight Academy who tipped the FBI that a terrorist might be in their midst were overlooked, however.
Both men, who were honored by a Senate resolution in 2005, reacted with disbelief at learning they'd been left out.
Tim Nelson, a former program manager at the school, said that if he or fellow flight manager Hugh Sims hadn't phoned the FBI on Aug. 15, 2001, ``they don't have a case.''
Prevost, 70, who testified at Moussaoui's 2006 death penalty trial, was handed a check during a ceremony attended by representatives of the FBI, State Department and Justice Department, said several government officials who declined to be identified.
Moussaoui was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2006 after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hijack planes and crash them into buildings. He later tried to withdraw the plea, but federal sentencing rules prohibited that.
Awards under the 23-year-old counterterrorism program generally are made in secret to protect the safety of those honored, and government officials declined to comment about Thursday's award. The program has paid more than $82 million to more than 50 people whose information helped to thwart attacks or led to the arrests and prosecutions of terrorists.
Questions about who deserves credit for helping federal agents arrest Moussaoui surfaced several years ago.
Prevost, a retired Northwest Airlines pilot who spent two days teaching Moussaoui, told a jury that the young French citizen of Moroccan descent was unlike any student he'd taught: He wanted to learn to fly a jumbo jet without ever soloing in a Cessna. Prevost said Moussaoui had paid the school $8,300, including $6,800 in hundred-dollar bills, and had behaved oddly.
Prevost said he asked Alan McHale, the school's training director, whether the school should seek an FBI background check on Moussaoui. Prevost didn't contact the FBI, but government officials said he took other actions that assisted the bureau, which they said they couldn't discuss.
But McHale, who said he was ``totally stunned'' by Thursday's award, said he has no recollection of Prevost urging him to call the FBI. However, he said, Nelson and Sims ``were screaming to me'' to do so.
Nelson and Sims said they phoned the bureau about an hour apart because they were convinced that the school wouldn't.
Reached in Minnesota, Nelson said he never had a reward in mind when he informed the FBI about Moussaoui, but is ``shocked that the FBI or State Department would single out one person, given what was done.''
``I'm dumbfounded ... speechless that calling the FBI and risking your job and putting your life out there ... and this is what the FBI does," Nelson said. "Clancy (Prevost) didn't call. The fact is, the two of us called.''
Nelson, 47, said that while he and Sims were racing to prevent Moussaoui from taking his first training session in a Boeing 747 flight simulator, Prevost let him watch a training session in one.
Sims, 68, a retired military pilot who lives in Fort Myers, Fla., said he's ``surprised and flabbergasted that there was even money for doing what we should have done in the first place.''
But, he said, ``if monies are to be distributed, I would think at least three equal shares ... would be justified.''
Prevost couldn't be reached for comment.