WASHINGTON — Two retired U.S. immigration officials who helped supervise the investigation of Zacarias Moussaoui have sharply criticized the government's $5 million reward to a flight instructor who shared what he knew about the al Qaida operative, with one calling it "obscene."
State Department and Justice Department officials who made the award last week are under fire for electing not to compensate two program managers at the Pan Am International Flight Academy. Both risked their jobs to tip the FBI to Moussaoui's suspicious behavior.
The former immigration officials said they wonder whether the reward to flight instructor Clarence Prevost was an attempt to deflect attention from the FBI's bungling of an investigation that might have foiled the Sept. 11 terror attacks. The government alleged that Moussaoui was in flight training to become a suicide hijacker.
"It's just so obscene, beyond comprehension," said Charles Midby, who supervised two Minnesota immigration agents involved in Moussaoui's arrest on Aug. 16, 2001. "I can understand why the Muslims view us as such a rotten and decadent society when we feel we have to give something like that to an American do his basic responsibility."
Mark Cangemi, who retired in 2006 as a special agent in charge of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for Minnesota and four other states, said he was told that even the FBI and ICE agents who supported an award for Prevost were taken aback by the amount.
"I'm very concerned that whoever made the decision that this award should be $5 million has now made it into a lottery," Cangemi said. Instead of sending the message that citizens have a duty to assist law enforcement, he said, "Now it's, 'If I give something and it turns into something, I get my $5 million.' I think this whole thing has been mishandled. ... I think it sets a very poor precedent."
A State Department spokesman declined to comment on the matter Monday.
Cangemi, an immigration agent for 33 years, said it's not unusual for informants who risk their safety to receive $10,000. He said that perhaps Prevost and tipsters Tim Nelson and Hugh Sims each should have gotten "a plaque, a trip to the White House and a check for $50,000."
Unlike Nelson and Sims, Prevost didn't tip off the FBI, but he spent considerable time with the government as it built a criminal case against Moussaoui.
Prevost, who testified at Moussaoui's 2006 death-penalty trial, was given the $5 million under the State Department's Rewards for Justice program, which offers up to $25 million for information that thwarts international acts of terrorism or leads to the arrests or convictions of terrorists.
Among more than 50 past honorees paid more than $77 million was an unidentified informant in East Asia credited with saving hundreds of lives by alerting authorities to plans for a series of terrorist attacks during the Persian Gulf War.
FBI and immigration agents arrested Moussaoui nearly a month before the Sept. 11 attacks. But he refused to cooperate with investigators, and FBI headquarters blocked Minneapolis agents from obtaining a warrant to search his possessions, which contained clues that could have led investigators to several of the hijackers.
Cangemi said he wondered whether the award was "an attempt to mask the failures of what happened pre-9-11."
Midby, who retired in 2002 after 23 years with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that with the award, the bureau seems to be "putting some makeup on to cover up their embarrassment."
Moussaoui pleaded guilty in 2005 to capital conspiracy charges. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.