Thursday, December 08, 2005

Justice Served?

"On behalf of Dr. Al-Arian, the defense rests."
-- Dr. Al-Arian's defense, in its entirety.

After 5 months of confabulatory and contradictory testimony from 80 witnesses, Dr. Sami Al-Arian has been found guilty of exactly zero of the 51 charges brought against him. You might say the system works - he's only lost 3 years of his life, much of which was spent in solitary, and also his job, and he's being shipped off to repeat the entire ridiculous fiasco in another country. The government's considering whether to run the same charges up a second flagpole, or simply ship him off to another show trial in Israel.

The St. Petersburg Times has a collection of resources concerning this case. The Tampa Tribune, meanwhile, played a surprising role in the effort to prosecute Dr. Al-Arian.


Blogger Management said...

Eric Boehlert: Sami Al-Arian: The Terror Verdict TV Networks Ignored

Eric BoehlertWed Dec 7,12:29 PM ET

Courtroom defeats for prosecutors don’t come much more embarrassing than the one suffered Tuesday in the Florida terror trial of Sami Al-Arian, who was acquitted on key charges of abetting terrorists. Along with three other defendants, Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, was charged with helping to lead a Palestinian terrorist group from his home near Tampa. Feds, who'd been eying A-Arian for nearly a decade, finally got their chance to indict him following 9/11 when the Patriot Act allowed all sorts of evidence to be suddenly permissible in court. Al-Arian's case never had anything to do with bin Laden or Saddam, but Bush's Justice Dept., which indicted Al-Arian just one month before the invasion of Iraq, made sure to leave the impression that the crucial terror case would keep America safe.

Anyway, the case turned out to be colossal flop, with the feds presenting a confusing mish-mash of jumbled transcripts and a mountain of circumstantial evidence that, according to press accounts, bored the jury to tears. The prosecution took nearly five months to present its case, which included testimony from nearly 80 witnesses. Finally given a chance to respond, here's what Al-Arian's attorney told the judge:

"On behalf of Dr. Al-Arian, the defense rests."

Al-Arian didn't call a single witness on his behalf. That might have been because prosecutors, who had tapped Al-Arian's phone for years and collected 20,000 hours of conversations, failed to present a single phone call in which violent terrorist acts were plotted. As has become something of a post-9/11 custom, the terror indictments were a lot more convincing than the actual terror trial. (See the Lackawanna Six.) And has also become customary, the network news teams looked the other way.

When then-Attorney General John Ashcroft personally announced the Al-Arian indictment on Feb. 20, 2003, in a press conference carried live on CNN (Ashcroft tagged Al-Arian the North American leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad), the story garnered a wave of excited media attention. ABC's "World News Tonight" led that night's newscast with the Al Arian arrest. Both NBC and CBS also gave the story prominent play that evening. But last night, in the wake of Al-Arian's acquittal, it was a different story. Neither ABC, CBS nor NBC led with the terror case on their evening newscasts. None of them slotted it second or third either. In fact, according to TVEyes, the 24-hour monitor system, none of networks reported the acquittal at all. Raise your hand if you think the nets would have covered the trial's conclusion if the jury had returned with a guilty verdict in what the government had hyped as a centerpiece to its War on Terror.

The story at least received cursory coverage on the cable news channels. CNN's Wolf Blitzer correctly called the verdict "stunning." Over at Fox News, which has been shadowing Al Arian for four years, they put on a brave face. Bill O'Reilly looked glum talking to fellow Al-Arian-hater Steve Emerson, who has spent more than ten years telling anyone who would listen that Al-Arian is a criminal mastermind.

But I wonder what the mood is like inside the Tampa Tribune newsroom, which years ago drove itself off the cliff with its obsessive, breathless and ominous Al-Arian coverage. Actually, 'obsessive' really does not do justice to the Tribune when it comes to Al-Arian. Guess how many articles and columns the paper has published on the topic over the last decade? 100? 200? 300? 400? Keep going. 500? 600? Nope. According to Nexis, the paper has printed more than 700 stories mentioning Sami Al-Arian. That's approximately one dispatch every five days…for ten years running.

The jury on Tuesday announced it was deadlocked on several charges and despite the awkward thumping they took, prosecutors may opt to try Al-Arian again. At least that way the Trib will be able to hit the 1,000 mark . And who knows, if the feds secure an Al-Arian conviction maybe it'll make the network evening news.

2:21 AM  
Blogger Management said...

Al-Arian Speaks
Apology from John Sugg: This column originally contained a quote attributed widely to Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Based upon several sources, including academic, I used that quote. It was not accurate, I have concluded after reviewing the original source material, a biography by Michael Bar Zohar. There are many quotes reflecting anger and hatred on both sides of the Middle East dispute, including several by Ben-Gurion -- who it should be noted, initially had a vision of Arab-Jewish unity. But the one I used was not accurate. I am especially apologetic because my error was pointed out by a parent of a child killed in the Middle East by terrorists.
In his first interview since the trial began, Sami Al-Arian talks about what the jury didn't hear.


The Hillsborough County jail on Orient Road, a monument of austere institutional concrete, is the home of sorrows. I was there last week to see Sami Al-Arian, arguably the most famous man in Tampa nowadays and one who should be among the most sorrowful, facing what could be life imprisonment for daring to be an advocate for his people.

As I waited in the lobby, watching the often tearful parents and wives and children of prisoners, I was thinking of an article I'd just read - trying to get my mind off of the Al-Arian case, a subject I've written about, and been sued over (winning the case), for a decade. The article was about famed scientist Carl Sagan, and he was quoted saying: "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."

That's a good metaphor, I thought, for the Al-Arian case. At what point do we have the beginning, the creation of the peculiar legal universe in which Al-Arian is now an unhappy denizen? The answer is the difference between Al-Arian being a passionate advocate or being a terrorist.

Was it when the government began wiretapping the academic in the early 1990s? When pseudo-journalist Steve Emerson captured Al-Arian on tape in the 1994 agit-prop film Jihad in America? Perhaps it was on April 21, 1995, when Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter first began targeting the Palestinian professor - by trying to hang the Oklahoma City bombing on Muslims, specifically Al-Arian?

My exclusive interview with Al-Arian - the first media op he has agreed to since the trial began - produced several nuggets of information, including what can only be called reckless endangerment of Al-Arian's life by federal marshals.

Throughout the interview, Al-Arian - dressed in blue jail garb, thinner and paler than when I last saw him four years ago - remained upbeat and animated. "I'm optimistic," he predicted about the trial's outcome.

Al-Arian also raised issues of why the government is prosecuting him now. Officials have claimed that it wasn't until intelligence agencies were able to share material - resulting from the so-called PATRIOT Act - that wiretaps were made available to the prosecution.

"The case would not have been brought except for three things," Al-Arian said. "First there was 9/11 and then [Attorney General John] Ashcroft.

"Despite what the government says, we know they were sharing the information," Al-Arian said. "We found an original indictment, from August of 2000 [when Al-Arian's brother in law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was fighting deportation at a hearing that amounted to a prequel of the current trial]. It had almost all of the same overt acts as the current indictment, and that came from wiretaps. It wasn't the PATRIOT Act.

"But [then-Attorney General] Janet Reno wouldn't go for it," Al-Arian said.

The third factor was lead FBI agent Kerry Myers. "He's a zealot," Al-Arian said. "When he arrested me, he came up behind me and whispered in my ear, 'You're charged with terrrrr-orrrrrr-issssmmmmm.'"

Al-Arian's thoughts on the cause of his prosecution - or persecution - were tops on my agenda. And, had he lied to me and others about his involvement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad?

"I didn't tell you and others everything," he said. "I said I was part of a movement. Some parts of the movement went one way, some another. That was true. But I didn't tell you other things, but I promise you someday I will."

[My notes from several interviews show that when I asked Al-Arian if he was a member of the PIJ, he responded, "No." However, he always expanded that answer by saying he was part of a broad intellectual movement, in which some of the people became violent and others didn't.]

During closing arguments, federal prosecutor Terry Zitek proclaimed his version of the big bang that began the crusade against Al-Arian.

The PIJ, Zitek told jurors, "wanted Israelis to give up their land from the river to the sea." And if the Israelis balked, Zitek contended, the PIJ "would kill them."

The government whistled Dixie and neglected to show the involvement of Al-Arian or his co-defendants, Ghassan Ballut, Hatim Fariz and Sameeh Hammoudeh, in violence - and, in fact, conceded that the men weren't engaged in actual acts of terrorism.

The federales have had help with their strategy. U.S. District Judge James Moody has allowed only testimony backing Zitek's view of what precipitated the trial, the spin from one side in the tragic events in the Middle East. Even a United Nations resolution mentioned in the government's own exhibits was not allowed to be explained in the closing arguments - because the document might provoke sympathy for Palestinians.

As I sat down on an uncomfortable plastic chair, facing Al-Arian through what looked like four inches of glass, I'd brought a piece of information. I was curious whether Al-Arian thought the jurors in his case had been privileged to see the same data: The Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem reports that more than 3,300 Palestinians, almost 700 of them children, have been slain by Israelis in the last five years. Fewer than 1,000 Israelis, including about 120 kids, have been killed by Palestinians.

Al-Arian: "That's the context. That's what Americans never hear. Who is getting killed, who is killing. That's what people [in America] never hear. All they hear is that Palestinians bomb civilians, but almost never that Israelis kill our children. You tell me, why will no one in America ever talk about the terrorism we have lived with" since 1948?

Good question.

More context the jurors never heard: Israel has been caught repeatedly spying on the United States. In 1967, Israel intentionally attacked the USS Liberty, killing 34 American servicemen (and claims by Israel that it was a mistake were labeled as "ridiculous" by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer). In 1954, Israel set up a spy ring to attack American and British targets - and blame the terrorism on Arabs; old history, maybe, but Israel recently honored the terrorists involved in what is called the "Lavon Affair."

By comparison, Palestinians have never targeted America - although Moody let the jurors hear unproven and highly prejudicial innuendo from FBI agent Kerry Myers that such an attack was planned. Here are excerpts from the interview with Al-Arian. Some parts have been withheld at his and his attorneys' request pending the jury verdict. My questions aren't verbatim, but include context from the conversation.

Q: How do you feel?

A: Well, yesterday, when they [marshals] were bringing me back [to the jail] they hit a car. They were speeding, going fast and had to stop. I didn't have a seatbelt on. They only cared about handcuffing me, not about safety. [Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, was at the interview, and added that he had been thrown around in the car, hitting his head.]

Q: What do you think about the progress of the trial, the likely verdict?

A: From day one, this has been a political case. There's no way the so-called evidence proves what the government claims.

Q: The jury?

A: It depends on [juror] 325. [Other jurors have reported that one of their colleagues, No. 325, has tried to prejudice them against Al-Arian. Judge Moody, for inexplicable reasons, has allowed this tainting influence to remain on the jury.]

Q: If you're acquitted?

A: My family. What is really hard is the suffering of my family. That is my first priority. Then [Al-Arian gave a big smile and put both palms on the glass barrier] I want to get a law degree.

Q: Do you think the Tribune's Michael Fechter has been vindicated?

A: No. The mistakes he made then are still mistakes. He wasn't working alone. He was on a first-name basis [with the federal agents]. Who gave him the Al-Shatti letter? [Fechter obtained a letter from agents - a letter Al-Arian claimed was never sent, and which prosecutors couldn't prove otherwise - that solicited funds from a Kuwaiti official. More on the Tribune's faulty reporting can be found here.

Q: Did you want to testify?

A: Yes. I have an answer to every single thing, every single transaction. For every penny, I have an explanation.

Q: What do you think of the legal process?

A: The system is absolutely not fair. There were 400 [wiretapped] conversations I wanted the jury to hear. Where I say this is not a religious war. My own words about Jews. My involvement with American politicians. In one conversation, June 19, 2002, I condemned [a terrorist attack]. But I can't bring that into court. Moody wouldn't allow that. Only the government could introduce conversations. If we wanted to introduce tapes of my own words, Moody said I would have to testify, which is what the government wanted.

And, the judge introduced agent Myers as an expert witness. He testified for six weeks on everything as an expert. But when it came our turn to ask questions, Moody says he was a "summary" witness [just summarizing evidence], and we couldn't go deep into his investigation. Again, how fair is that?

Q: Your attorneys have depicted you as splitting from the PIJ as it became violent in the mid-1990s. Is that accurate?

A: Yes, of course. April 28, 1994. There are no calls dealing with the PIJ after April 28. None.

Q: The government claims the conspiracy was going on until just a few years ago. Did you realize you were under surveillance?

A: I've listened to you on the tapes. When you would call me, you'd say, 'Hello Sami, hello Barry.'" [Barry Carmody was the original FBI agent on the case.] Yes, I knew they were watching.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Management said...

Government loses key court test of Patriot Act
Acquittal, hung jury for Florida professor accused of terrorism called 'serious setback' for Justice Department.
By Tom Regan |
Two years ago, when former Florida professor Sami al-Arian was charged with being part of a Tampa, Fla., terrorist cell that helped fund attacks against Israel, John Ashcroft, then-Attorney General, hailed it as "a milestone in the war on terror." The Tampa Tribune writes that when a jury in Tampa yesterday acquitted Mr. Arian of eight of 17 charges against him, including the major charges of conspiring to commit murder abroad, money laundering, and obstruction of justice, and deadlocked on the other nine charges, the Justice Department's case "crumbled" right before their eyes.

The Tribune reports that the verdicts "mark a stunning defeat for federal prosecutors." Along with Arian, his codefendants Sameeh Hammoudeh and Ghassan Ballut were acquitted on all counts. Hatim Fariz was acquitted on the counts on which jurors could reach a verdict.

"This ranks as one of the most significant defeats for the US government, for the Justice Department since 9/11," said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University Law School who has represented other terrorism defendants. "The Justice Department spent copious amounts of money and time to make the case against Al-Arian."

Prosecutors presented evidence from 20,000 hours of phone conversations and hundreds of faxes obtained through the government's expanded 'search and surveillence' powers under the Patriot Act, to try to prove that Arian and his codefendants were providing money to Islamic Jihad, a group that has been on the US terrorism list for about 10 years. CNN reports that the government had taken separate cases against Arian, including a "years-long secret foreign intelligence probe of the professor's activities," and combined them into one case against him.

The BBC reports that Arian argued that he was charged only because of his opinions about the state of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians and Palestinian rights. Arian, a US resident for 30 years who was born in Kuwait of Palestinian parents, says he never advocated violence against others and has always denied connections to terrorists.

He was one of the founders of a think-tank, the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, and a charity, the Islamic Committee for Palestine, formed in the late 1980s and 1990s to support an independent Palestinian state.The indictment charged that he had used the groups as fronts to funnel money to terrorists. Mr. al-Arian says the money was sent to help Palestinian children in refugee camps

The St. Petersburg Times, in a detailed Q&A about the case against Arian, reports that jurors felt the government didn't do enough to justify a conviction.

Several jurors said that, despite the massive evidence produced by the government, there was not enough proof to support convicting the four men. Said one: "The dots didn't connect." One juror called the trial difficult and complex. The government offered 80 witnesses, a fair amount of dry testimony and 400 transcripts of wiretapped conversations and faxes. Much of the case was circumstantial. As the trial progressed, even prosecutors agreed with defense attorneys that there were no direct links between the defendants and violence.

The New York Times reports that a spokeswoman for the Justice Department said officials were disappointed with the verdicts, and insisted that the government had a strong record of success in prosecuring alleged terrorists, including recent convictions against a northern Virginia student and a Pakistani immigrant in New York on charges of supporting Al Qaeda.

We remain focused on the important task at hand, which is to protect our country through our ongoing vigorous prosecution of terrorism cases," said Tasia Scolinos, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. "While we respect the jury's verdict, we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami al-Arian and his co-defendants."

The Los Angeles Times reports that although the Patriot Act provisions used in this case were not controversial, "the setback for the government is likely to result in further scrutiny of Justice Department claims that the tools are vital to defend the country."

Even before the law was enacted, "if they had found that Al-Arian was doing anything criminal, the evidence could have been disclosed to prosecutors and introduced against him in court," said James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington advocacy group.

Added David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington: "They say the Patriot Act allows them to connect the dots. But they failed to make the most important connection, which was to tie Mr. Al-Arian to some violent or criminal act. It should make the government rethink its reliance on these very broad theories of guilt by association," he said.

The St. Petersburg Times reports that Arian and Mr. Hammoudeh will remain in jail until the government decides if it wants to retry them on the deadlocked charges. Arian's lawyers say they will soon ask that he be released on bail while the government ponders its moves.

Mr. Turley of George Washington University told the Tampa Tribune that it's extremely likely the government will retry the nine charges on which the jury could not reach a decision.

"I think the government's in this for a penny or a pound," he said. "This is an enormous embarrassment to the government. The government is so enormously invested in convicting al-Arian, it's hard to believe they will walk away. There are too many résumés at the Justice Department at risk."

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they would also seek to deport Arian, probably sending him to Israel, the country he has often criticized, since he is a Palestinian. Arian's attornies called this move "totally vindictive" since their client had not been convicted of any charge.

Ahmed Bedier, regional director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, told the Washington Post that the trial would have repercussions in the larger Muslim world.

Neal Abid, president of Orlando's Arab American Community Center, told the Orlando Sentinel that it shows why America is a great country and that the justice systems works for all Americans.

2:27 AM  
Blogger Management said...

Not guilty, but not over

A federal prosecution accusing Al-Arian and three other men of financing and promoting Middle East terrorism collapses.

Published December 6, 2005

TAMPA - The judge announced the verdicts, one by one, and Sami Al-Arian's eyes shifted to his family, then back to the bench to take in the words he had waited years to hear.

As U.S. District Judge James S. Moody read the last "not guilty," Al-Arian threw his head back, looked toward the ceiling and smiled. With tears pouring down his face, he took his glasses off and wiped his eyes with a tissue.

"God bless America," whispered his wife, Nahla, from the spectator section.

A massive federal prosecution against Al-Arian, 47, and three other men accused of financing and promoting Middle East terrorism collapsed Tuesday when jurors found Al-Arian not guilty on eight counts and a judge declared a mistrial on nine others.

Two of Al-Arian's co-defendants were acquitted entirely, and a third was acquitted on most counts, with jurors deadlocked on several others.

In the end, not a single guilty verdict was returned after a six-month trial that included more than 80 witnesses and 400 transcripts of intercepted phone conversations and faxes.

The verdicts were a major defeat for the federal government, which characterized Al-Arian's indictment as a major case against terrorism, and a victory for Al-Arian's attorneys, who considered the government's case so weak they they declined to put on a defense.

"Your nightmare is over. Your 10-year nightmare is over," Linda Moreno, a co-counsel for Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, told her client at the trial's end.

But officials with the U.S. Justice Department, which investigated Al-Arian for years before filing charges, are still deciding whether to retry Al-Arian and co-defendant Hatem Fariz on charges for which the jury deadlocked.

One remaining charge against Al-Arian and Fariz, a racketeering conspiracy charge, carries a potential life sentence. Al-Arian was returned to the Hillsborough jail after the verdict. His attorneys could try to get him out on bail but said it was likely immigration officials would immediately pick him up for detention.

"The Justice Department has a strong track record of success in prosecuting terrorists and those who support terrorist activities. We remain focused on the important task at hand, which is to protect our country through our ongoing vigorous prosecution of terrorism cases," said Tasia Scolinos, director of public affairs for the U.S. Justice Department.

"While we respect the jury's verdict," she said, "we stand by the evidence we presented in court against Sami Al-Arian and his co-defendants."

Prosecutors in the case declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said Tuesday the agency would work with the Department of Homeland Security to deport Al-Arian, who is not a U.S. citizen, at the conclusion of legal proceedings.

Al-Arian attorney William Moffitt called that move "totally vindictive" since Al-Arian has not been convicted of any crimes.

Overall, however, Tuesday was a day of relief for Al-Arian, Fariz, 32, and the two other defendants, Ghassan Ballut, 43, and Sameeh Hammoudeh, 44, who were found not guilty of all charges.

"I'm feeling relief like a ton of bricks have been taken off your shoulders, but basically these last three weeks have been some of the most spiritual times in my life," Al-Arian told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday night from the Hillsborough County Jail.

Al-Arian went from computer science professor to controversial international figure in the decade after a television documentary and articles in the Tampa Tribune raised questions about terrorist ties to a think tank he ran at USF.

FBI agents tapped his phones for nine years. They twice raided his home and offices, taking dozens of boxes of personal belongings. He was arrested in February 2003 and fired by USF in that same month. He spent the past three years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, charged with 17 counts of terrorism-related activities. His trial began June 6, 2005. It ended Tuesday, exactly six months later.

Defense attorneys had shuddered at a trial in Tampa, fearing years of publicity would make it impossible to seat an impartial jury. They pressed repeatedly for a change of venue, which was denied. But Tuesday they praised the jurors, saying the system had worked.

"I believe the government didn't have a case," Al-Arian said after the verdict. "I knew that, but I hoped the jury would be able to see that."

As it turned out, the great majority of jurors wanted to acquit Al-Arian and the three co-defendants on all charges. But, they say, two to three others held out for conviction, which resulted in a hung jury on a combined 17 counts for Fariz and Al-Arian.

"Usually, there were 10 of us for acquittal on the charges, sometimes nine of us," said Ron, a juror from Pasco County who did not want his last name used. Because of the nature of the terrorism case, the government kept jurors' identities sealed from the public.

"Of course, we hate terrorism," said Ron. "But the evidence making these guys terrorists just wasn't there."

In the beginning, said several jurors, six of them were leaning toward convictions on most of the charges for all four defendants. They were charged in a 51-count indictment of conspiring to raise money for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for hundreds of deaths in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

Out of these conspiracy charges, which carried sentences of 20 years to life, came charges of money laundering, obstruction of justice, illegal interstate commerce and immigration fraud. Hammoudeh and Ballut were acquitted of all charges. Fariz and Al-Arian were acquitted on most of the lesser charges. But the jury was deadlocked on Count One, which was conspiring to conduct the affairs of an enterprise for illegal purposes - raising money for the PIJ.

"Ten of us wanted to acquit them on all charges, but two wouldn't tell us what the evidence was to convict, but wouldn't go along with acquittal," said Ron.

At one point during the deliberations, while looking at mountains of transcripts, a female juror from St. Petersburg who asked that her name not be used said she exclaimed, "An awful lot of trees went into this evidence. But for what purpose, I don't know."

Jurors say they were strongly affected by the jury instructions. In particular, they kept returning to these words: "Our law does not criminalize beliefs or mere membership in an organization. A person who is in sympathy with the legitimate aim of an organization but does not intend to accomplish that aim by a resort to illegal activity is not punished for adherence to lawful purposes of speech."

While they knew that Al-Arian had phone conversations with PIJ leadership, jurors said, they still had trouble finding proof of illegal acts, since his conversations occurred before the PIJ was declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization, making association illegal.

There was much discussion among jurors over what prosecutors considered one of their best pieces of evidence: a 1995 letter Al-Arian wrote to a Kuwaiti legislator requesting money so actions, similar to a suicide bombing in Gaza, "could continue."

The letter was found in Al-Arian's house during an FBI search, and prosecutors frequently mentioned it as proof of Al-Arian's criminal intent.

But Ron, the juror, noted the original was found in Al-Arian's house, meaning it could not have been sent. And no government witnesses ever testified that it was sent.

"The evidence wasn't there to put a guilty verdict on it," said Juror 112, a 40-year-old truck driver from Lakeland named Todd.

"People assume. They assume guilt," said Todd. "People really need to think about things before they make a decision. You really need to get the facts first.

"I sat in that room for six months. Until you've sat through something like this . . . you cannot sit in your car or at your house and determine guilt."

Born in Kuwait of Palestinian heritage, Al-Arian was well-known for his Palestinian activism locally. Suspicion about his links to terrorists arose in 1994, after he was questioned in a TV documentary called Jihad in America, and later in a series of stories in the Tampa Tribune.

That suspicion intensified in late 1995 after Ramadan Shallah, a man Al-Arian hired to run a Tampa think tank known as the World and Islam Studies Enterprise, left the country and became the new head of the PIJ.

When the U.S. Patriot Act and a court ruling cleared the way for greater sharing of information between intelligence agencies and law enforcement, Al-Arian was arrested on the lengthy federal conspiracy indictment.

During the trial, jurors heard testimony ranging from a Palestinian legislator to the father of an American girl killed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Israel.

Beyond the question of whether Al-Arian and those associated with him violated federal law, the trial did shed some light on unresolved questions about Al-Arian.

Wiretap conversations clearly show that, during the time he was presenting himself as an independent advocate of Palestinian rights, he was, in fact, deeply involved with PIJ, proposing changes in their leadership structure, overall strategy and financial management. Those discussions did not include talk of violent acts.

Moreover, evidence showed that top employees of WISE, including Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, were receiving payments from PIJ while they were working in Tampa for the think tank and the university.

After five months of prosecution evidence, Al-Arian's defense attorneys caused a stir Oct. 27 when they rested without putting on a defense.

"Because there is a document called the U.S. Constitution - unless we're about to repeal it - it protects Dr. Al-Arian's right to speak, and the government has not proven that Dr. Al-Arian has done anything but speak. . . . The fact that Dr. Al-Arian is a Palestinian deprives him of no civil rights," said Moffitt, explaining the decision.

The remaining defendants' cases took far less time than the prosecution, and jurors began their deliberations Nov. 15. The jurors - seven men and five women, plus two alternates - made their way through an extremely complicated 51-count indictment involving four different defendants, which required 95 pages of jury instructions. Their deliberations had been quiet until Monday, when they told the judge they had reached verdicts for two defendants, but were deadlocked on two others.

Then, Tuesday, one juror sent a message to the judge saying she felt pressured and coerced to change her decision. The judge asked the jurors to see if they could come to a unanimous decision without compromising their beliefs. When they later said they couldn't, he declared a mistrial on the deadlocked counts.

Al-Arian's attorneys say if he is cleared of all charges and allowed to remain in the country, he has plans for the next chapter in his life: He wants to become a lawyer.
Times staff writers Vanessa Gezari, Brady Dennis, Rebecca Catalanello, Kevin Graham, Bill Coats, Michael Van Sickler, Melanie Ave and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. [Last modified December 6, 2005, 23:18:02]

2:27 AM  
Blogger Management said...

The prime-time smearing of Sami Al-Arian
By pandering to anti-Arab hysteria, NBC, Fox News, Media General and Clear Channel radio disgraced themselves -- and ruined an innocent professor's life.

Editor's note: This story is anthologized in the Salon book "Afterwords: Stories and Reports From 9/11 and Beyond." To buy the book, click here.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Eric Boehlert

Jan. 19, 2002 | It may not provide him much comfort, but tenured University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, recently fired after his appearance on a conservative talk show revived discredited, years-old allegations of ties to anti-Israel terrorists, may be the first computer science professor ever mugged by four of the nation's most influential news organizations.

USF administrators fired the Kuwaiti-born professor after he appeared on national television for five minutes of punditry last fall. His crime? Not telling viewers that his views did not necessarily reflect those of the school. It was a tortured rationale that all but guaranteed future litigation.

As Salon recently reported, the Al-Arian episode raises disturbing questions about free speech, academic freedom and the future of tenured status. But what's also important to understand is the crucial role the press played in the unfolding saga.

The University of South Florida is ultimately responsible for firing Al-Arian. But equally culpable are Fox News Channel, NBC, Media General (specifically its Tampa newspaper) and the giant radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications.

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all four media giants, eagerly tapping into the country's mood of vengeance and fear, latched onto the Al-Arian story, fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story about lurking Middle Eastern dangers here at home.

The story went national when Al-Arian was invited on the Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" show back on Sept. 26. Host Bill O'Reilly revived inflammatory charges against Al-Arian dating back, in some cases, 15 years. Those charges were that a now-defunct Islamic think tank Al-Arian founded and ran in conjunction with USF operated as a sort of home away from home for radical Palestinians and terrorists. The charges had been thoroughly investigated and rejected by USF, and an immigration judge; the FBI has been looking for years and has never filed any charges.

Not even his harshest critics suggest Al-Arian has done anything in the last five years that could be even remotely construed as aiding terrorist organizations. The entire controversy sprang from the fact that viewers became enraged after old allegations were re-aired, albeit often in mangled form, by O'Reilly.

O'Reilly's accusatory and hectoring interrogation of Al-Arian, filled with false statements and McCarthy-like smears, climaxed in a chilling parting shot in which the host repeatedly told his stammering guest that if he were with the CIA, "I'd follow you wherever you went" -- clearly implying that he believed Al-Arian was a terrorist. Not surprisingly in the fearful and hysterical climate after Sept. 11, the show resulted in a torrent of angry calls, including death threats against al-Arian, to USF.

Before firing him, USF placed Al-Arian on paid leave, saying his presence made the campus unsafe and pointing to an avalanche of hate mail and death threats.

But the Gulf Coast hysteria was entirely created by the media. Without the Tampa Tribune, which undertook a dubious seven-year crusade against al-Arian, there would have been no story to begin with. Without "The O'Reilly Factor" -- a showcase for noisy right-wing ranting whose producers apparently didn't even know that Al-Arian had been cleared of charges before they handed him over to their equally ignorant hanging-judge host -- the controversy would never have been revived. Without incendiary, know-nothing Clear Channel radio jocks, led by a gentleman named Bubba the Love Sponge, there would almost certainly have been far fewer USF death threats. And without NBC's sloppy work on "Dateline" there would probably have been no firing.

The Al-Arian story reveals what happens when journalists, abandoning their role as unbiased observers, lead an ignorant, alarmist crusade against suspicious foreigners who in a time of war don't have the power of the press or public sympathy to fight back. It's called a pile-on, and this game first began in Tampa, seven years ago.

On April 21, 1995, Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter wrote a news story about the bombing at the Oklahoma City federal building, which had been destroyed two days earlier by domestic right-wing terrorists. Law enforcement officials had yet to make an arrest, but Fechter had his own ideas. "More and more," he wrote, "terrorism experts in the United States and elsewhere say Wednesday's bombing in Oklahoma City bears the characteristics of other deadly attacks linked to Islamic militants."

Fechter seemed to be an odd choice to write the piece, since at the time the county news reporter had virtually no experience covering religion, politics or terrorism for the Tribune. Instead, he wrote crime stories, covered local city council politics and monitored neighborhood action groups.

But what readers didn't know was that Fechter had recently befriended controversial terrorism expert Steve Emerson -- who has been accused of sloppy journalism and with having a pervasive anti-Arab bias -- and behind the scenes was remaking himself into a self-styled authority on terrorism. The following month the Tribune would uncork Fechter's sprawling series about Al-Arian and the alleged ties between him, his USF think tank and terrorists. The story would keep Fechter busy for the next six years, as he churned out nearly 70 stories on the topic.

But first, as a sort of dry run, Fechter wrote about the Oklahoma City bombing case. Taking the cue from his terrorist mentor Emerson, who made the same bogus claim on national television, Fechter pointed an accusatory finger at Muslims. Looking back, the glaring mistake should have raised a red flag among Tribune editors about their new in-house terrorist expert.

Thirty-seven days after the Oklahoma City miscue, Fechter's exposé landed on Page 1 of Sunday's May 28, 1995, paper. Picking up where Emerson had left off with his inflammatory 1994 documentary "Jihad in America," which argued angry Muslims at home pose a larger danger to this country than Muslim terrorists abroad, Fechter breathlessly reported that Al-Arian had raised money for Islamic groups that had killed hundreds of people around the world. In addition, Fechter wrote that World Islamic Studies Enterprises, or WISE, the USF think tank Al-Arian helped create, had associated with, and even invited to the campus, known terrorists.

As would become Fechter's custom for years to come, the evidence presented was mostly circumstantial, with guilt by association being his weapon of choice.

That was the conclusion other area journalists came to over time, with the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald both agreeing the Tribune's charges against Al-Arian were weak and revolved around questionable journalism.

John Sugg, writing in the Tampa alternative newspaper The Weekly Planet, was the most scathing, concluding, "The Tribune has woven together unproven assertions, articles from highly suspect publications and out-of-context statements."

Those types of notices probably kept the story from being picked up nationally at the time. Locally, however, the Tribune series had an enormous impact, particularly on Al-Arian's life. Spurred on by the paper's provocative charges, local law enforcement agencies launched investigations, raided the WISE office as well as Al-Arian's home and arrested his brother-in-law for deportation.

How do we know government investigators were following the Tribune's lead and not the other way around? Weeks after the first of the paper's Al-Arian stories ran, the professor's citizenship application was derailed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Al-Arian has lived in America for a quarter of a century.) Al-Arian filed a Freedom of Information request to see what secret evidence was being used to justify the delay. Two years later the INS's evidence was revealed: Tampa Tribune newspaper clippings.

Over the years the Tribune has supported Fechter, creating a separate Web page so readers could view his entire series, and often cheerleading his work from the editorial page.

And both the Tribune and Fechter enjoy staunch defenders in the community. "I felt the reporting of Tribune warranted a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting," says Norman Gross, leader of a Tampa area Jewish media-watch group.

Gross says he recently met with Tribune editors on Dec. 19 and discussed the paper's coverage. The next day the paper ran an editorial entitled "USF Gets Rid of a Hatemonger," fervently supporting USF's decision to fire the professor. That was odd, since two months earlier a Tribune editorial, while denouncing Al-Arian's actions, suggested any talk of firing him was "ridiculous." After all, asked the Tribune, "Do we want a university where there is no free expression of ideas?" Apparently, after Dec. 19, the paper's answer is yes. (Joe Guidry, who wrote the contradictory editorials, did not return calls seeking comment.)

The seeds of Al-Arian's firing were planted in Fechter's May 28, 1995, article. Some of the evidence Fechter cited in order to substantiate his claim that Al-Arian had ties to terrorists consisted of "rhetoric presented in the conferences" organized by the USF professor. Fechter also noted that Sudanese leader Hassan Turabi, whom he characterized as "the leader of a terrorist state," had visited the USF campus under Al-Arian's watch. Later, Fechter wrote ominously that Al-Arian had "lured" Turabi to USF.

Unfortunately for Fechter's alarmist thesis, on that same trip Turabi also met with Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and the editorial board of the Washington Post, and he spoke at both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution.

Al-Arian had also founded a Palestinian advocacy group called Islamic Committee for Palestine, or ICP. In his original May 28 article, Fechter, trying to tie Al-Arian to terrorism, quoted fiery articles from an ICP publication supporting the intifada and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing -- though Fechter acknowledged that the magazine "included a disclaimer that views expressed were not necessarily the ICP's."

From Day 1, Al-Arian, while never shying away from his militant support for the Palestinian cause, has denied supporting terrorism or terrorist activities. "I have never raised a cent for Islamic Jihad," he said. He has acknowledged that ICP helped raise funds -- $20,000 or $30,000 a year -- for Palestinian charity organizations, and suggested in a letter to a friend that anyone looking to help Palestinians should send money to Hamas, the radical Islamic resistance group. Hamas, whose members have staged numerous terrorist attacks against Israel, has a political wing that distributes money to Palestinian widows and orphans of men killed in the conflict with Israel. It can certainly be argued that money raised for Hamas, regardless of its intentions, could end up supporting its terrorist activities. But it was only in 1996, after anti-terrorism legislation was passed, that it became a crime to send money to foreign groups classified by the State Department as terrorist organizations, such as Hamas.

In fact, what Fechter uncovered, and the rest of the media piled onto, was not a dangerous terrorist but a fairly mainstream -- that is, pro-intifada -- Palestinian, who in his hot-headed youth made regrettably inflammatory comments about Israel, but who has never been tied to any terrorist groups. What's noteworthy here is how eagerly the post-9-11 media conflated the Palestinian cause with bin Ladin and al-Qaida, when in fact there is little actual connection, beyond a shared anger at Israel, between the two.

In a July, 10, 1997, article, Fechter tried mightily to prove a local Muslim travel agent was somehow involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing because one year before the blast he booked a flight for one of the suspects. Fechter wrote that the travel agent "advocated violence abroad against the enemies of Islam."

A correction in the next day's Tribune conceded that accusation was false.

In October of 1995 the Al-Arian story took on added urgency when Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the former head of WISE who had returned to the Middle East months earlier, suddenly emerged as the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a radical group that has engaged in many acts of terrorism against Israelis. The USF community expressed shock at the turn of events, and to this day there's been no proof that anyone in Tampa knew of Shallah's connections, if any, to the organization when he was at USF, or any proof that he was involved in terrorist activities at that time or subsequently.

That didn't deter Fechter, who on Aug. 7, 1997, reported matter-of-factly that "Shallah now says he served as the terrorist group's second in command" while working in Tampa. The Tribune subsequently retracted that assertion.

At one point Fechter quoted an obscure Jordanian newspaper, al Urdun, that suggested that even if Shallah hadn't been tapped to run Islamic Jihad, another WISE researcher, Basheer Nafi, was next in line. Al Urdun later retracted the story, but Fechter continued to make the assertion in print.

Why? Fechter today insists, "If the article was untrustworthy, the retraction was, too."

While Fechter had no qualms about quoting from obscure Middle Eastern papers to support his charges, he was less willing to cite experts. Fechter has never quoted this November 1995 passage from Israeli journalist Ze'ev Schiff, generally acknowledged to be the nation's leading commentator on military affairs, who informed readers that Shallah "does not have a previous experience in terrorist actions. His background is predominantly political. ... Nor is he considered a religious fundamentalist."

The saga took its second major turn when Al-Arian's WISE colleague and brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was arrested for deportation. Although he had clearly overstayed his student visa, Al-Najjar appealed. Rather than release him on bond, the government submitted secret evidence to the court, insisting that Al-Najjar had terrorist ties. A judge ordered Al-Najjar held without bond.

In a move that turned traditional journalism ethics on its head, Fechter, who had already been criticized by area Muslims for being biased in his reporting, was allowed to write a Sunday commentary for the Tribune, where he derided the "public sympathy campaign" being waged on Al-Najjar's behalf.

For more than three years Al-Najjar sat in jail without knowing what the evidence against him was. Finally, in 2000, a federal judge ruled the use of secret evidence had violated Al-Najjar's constitutional rights and ordered a new bond hearing. After sifting through all the government evidence that, like the Tribune reporting, tried to tie WISE and its associates to terrorist activities, Judge R. Kevin McHugh, a former military judge, ordered Al-Najjar set free.

In his decision, McHugh set aside space to address the activity at USF: "Although there were allegations that ICP and WISE were 'fronts' for Palestinian political causes, there is no evidence before the Court that demonstrates that either organization was a front for the [Islamic Jihad]. To the contrary, there is evidence in the record to support the conclusion that WISE was a reputable and scholarly research center and the ICP was highly regarded."

To this day, the judge's passage, which knocked down the entire premise of Fechter's crusade, has never been quoted in full by any Tampa Tribune reporter. Readers only saw the whole quote when Al-Arian himself penned an Op-Ed for the paper, one year after the ruling was issued.

That court decision, combined with an independent investigation launched by USF whose final 200-page report also found no proof of terrorist ties to WISE or USF, seemed to signal the logical conclusion of the Al-Arian saga. But the irrepressible Fechter returned last June with another in his series of "Tampa's a hotbed for Islamic radical" stories. "Tampa Links Cited in Bombing Trial," was the headline to the 1,800-word, Page 1 Tribune story.

Fechter reported that the name of Tariq Hamdi had come up during the trial of four men convicted of conspiring to destroy U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, where 224 people were killed in 1998. That's because Hamdi, now a journalist, had been hired as a consultant by ABC News to help secure an interview with Osama bin Laden in 1998. Prosecutors contended Hamdi delivered to bin Laden's network a replacement battery for a satellite telephone. Hamdi was never charged with any wrongdoing.

What were the "Tampa links" that led the Tribune to play the story on Page 1? It turns out that Hamdi, a former grad student who left USF a decade ago, once served as ICP's office manager.

This past December, Fechter wrote another excited, Page 1 story about a document found in Al-Arian's home that detailed a "vast covert intelligence and training operation spread throughout the United States."

After reading all 1,400 words, readers learned the document was A) written 20 years ago by B) an unknown person C) seized by investigators in 1996 who D) confronted Al-Arian with it one year earlier and then took no action.

By then, the Al-Arian story, thanks to the post-Sept. 11 interest in all things terror-related, as well as the professor's ill-fated appearance on the "The O'Reilly Factor," was big news again. But what the Tribune has never told its readers is the role Fechter played in helping O'Reilly's producers prepare for the show. He provided them with translations of a solicitation letter Al-Arian wrote seven years ago, as well as a composite videotape of meetings from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Tribune editor-in-chief Gil Thelen defends the information sharing, calling it nothing more than a "professional courtesy," and denies the paper needed to inform readers of Fechter's role as he covered the aftermath of Al-Arian's TV appearance, including the death threats, his paid leave and then his firing.

But Dean Mills, dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, disagrees, saying, "If a reporter or newspaper played some role in another medium's program which became a news event, then they have an obligation to include that fact in their coverage."

When prepping O'Reilly's producers, Fechter never mentioned Judge McHugh's definitive ruling, which completely exonerated Al-Arian and WISE. "I felt confident that Dr. Al-Arian would be capable of pointing out the judge's writings on his own," wrote Fechter in an e-mail response to Salon. "My interest is in getting answers to questions [Al-Arian] does not want to face and that other reporters choose not to ask."

Incredibly -- or maybe not so incredibly -- O'Reilly's producers apparently never bothered to look into the legal disposition of Al-Arian's case. John Sugg, now senior editor of Atlanta's Creative Loafing newspaper, recently talked to Fox producers when they contacted him about appearing on the show for a follow-up segment about Al-Arian. "They said they did not know there was exculpatory information or that a judge had examined this stuff," says Sugg. "They felt like O'Reilly got blindsided."

So much for the no-spin zone.

For weeks, O'Reilly played up the Al-Arian interview, returning to the topic 14 different times. Despite assuring viewers "we researched it pretty thoroughly," he routinely bungled the facts.

For instance, during his original interview O'Reilly insisted former Tampa resident Tariq Hamdi was "on the [FBI] list of suspected terrorists," which is simply not true. On subsequent telecasts O'Reilly insisted that "to this day," Al-Arian "has contacts with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad" and remains "very tight" with the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Those are allegations not even Fechter or Emerson have dared to make.

Neither O'Reilly nor his producers returned calls for comment.

By the time USF fired Al-Arian, O'Reilly was trying to wash his hands of the situation: "I'm getting blamed for this guy losing his job. I don't want that blame on me," he told viewers.

O'Reilly's belated profession of blamelessness is ludicrous, but there's plenty of media blame to go around.

Tampa Tribune columnist Daniel Ruth helped by painting a picture of an unrepentant professor still spouting hate when he recently wrote that Al-Arian made highly inflammatory, anti-Israel comments at a rally in 1998. Ruth was off by a decade: Al-Arian made the remarks, which he now says he regrets having made, as a 30-year-old in 1988, the year the intifada began. The Tribune has yet to correct that error.

Certainly the veteran terrorism expert and NBC news consultant, Steve Emerson would take credit, not blame, for Al-Arian's firing. Despite the fact no charges have ever been brought against the USF professor (on the contrary; he's met personally with both Presidents Clinton and Bush in recent years), Emerson has been branding Al-Arian a terrorist for close to a decade. During a 1996 speaking engagement in St. Petersburg, Emerson, citing anonymous sources, assured the audience that Palestinian radicals at USF were involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Testifying before Congress that same year, Emerson said that materials seized at Al-Arian's home constituted "one of the largest acquisitions of raw terrorist material ever found in the United States."

And during a 1997 speech Emerson laid it on thick, insisting, "From the safety of [his] Tampa office, Mr. Al-Arian operated a terrorist organization, raising funds, recruiting terrorists and bringing them into the country, devising terrorist strategies, and actually directing specific terrorist attacks." Again, Emerson's unspecified sources made it impossible to verify these sensational charges. Of course, if Emerson had real evidence to support them, Al-Arian wouldn't be sweating an appearance on the "The O'Reilly Factor" today; he'd be doing hard time.

Despite that string of hollow indictments, producers at NBC's news magazine "Dateline" didn't hesitate to usher Emerson on the air last October for a segment to -- what else? -- accuse Al-Arian of aiding terrorists.

In her introduction, NBC's Jane Pauley recklessly stressed a connection between Al-Arian and Sept. 11: "We're told that it's probable, if not certain, that there are still terrorists among us. Now investigators say there is evidence that an organization with ties to Middle East terrorists may have been operating in Florida for as long as a decade."

The "investigators" turned out to be ... Steve Emerson. In fact, NBC never interviewed a single law enforcement official for its Oct. 28 report. The "Dateline" piece consisted entirely of Emerson, who was given a prime-time platform to air his creative accusations. (Al-Arian refused to appear on the show.)

Emerson told "Dateline" reporter Bob McKeown that Islamic Jihad "had essentially relocated to the United States in the city of Tampa," where it was operating as "a shadow government" for the terrorist group.

Emphasis on shadow, since neither the FBI, the INS, the CIA, USF nor the Tampa police were ever able to uncover it. Only Emerson.

Of course, Emerson never mentioned that Judge McHugh had looked at these allegations in 2000 and found no wrongdoing. It's not clear whether McKeown even knew about the judge's ruling.

Neither "Dateline" producers nor McKeown would comment about the segment. Hussein Ibish, communications director at the American Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, says he called McKeown twice after the piece aired, but never heard back. "If I'd been responsible for such a shoddy piece of journalism I wouldn't want to be held accountable," says Ibish. "It was indefensible."

Another key media player in this drama has been the St. Petersburg Times, the Tribune's competitor across the Bay. Interestingly, the Times, which for years had offered a long-running counterbalance to the Tribune's sinister take on Al-Arian, may have precipitated Al-Arian's firing when the paper seemed to turn on him after Sept. 11.

"I've gotten the distinct impression that something has happened at the St. Pete Times. Their coverage [on Al-Arian] has just deteriorated," says Joe Mahon, a former Middle Eastern oil executive who has met with local editors in recent years on behalf of Muslims in the Tampa community.

That shift most likely stemmed from the fact that the Times' Susan Aschoff, who worked the story for years, was taken off the beat on Sept. 28, just as Al-Arian's appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" was exploding into a big national story.

Aschoff wouldn't discuss the move. But according to Mahon, who spoke with the reporter last fall, she was told the move stemmed from her "incompetence." Yet 10 months earlier Aschoff's editors had nominated her work for a Pulitzer Prize. (She's still with the paper, covering medical news.)

"She was clearly upset and did not know what was going on," says Mahon. "It puzzles me and I wonder if the paper was responding to pressure."

Norman Gross, who runs the local Jewish media-watch group, and who had complained about Aschoff's work in the past, was glad to see her go. "I just felt she'd become so taken with Al-Arian that she could no longer write a story without putting in a phrase or twist sympathetic to the cause."

Neither Times editor and president Paul Tash nor managing editor Neil Brown returned calls to discuss the newspaper's coverage.

The paper's Nov. 1 editorial, "Behind Al-Arian's Facade," added to the perception that after Sept. 11, St. Petersburg Times executives may have felt, at least from a P.R. standpoint, they were on the wrong side of an emotionally charged issue involving Middle Eastern terrorism.

Taking its lead from NBC's "Dateline" broadcast, the paper lashed out at the USF professor for "playing his American hosts for fools for years," and "spewing the most hateful sort of venom in the company of fellow Islamic extremists." (The paper's editorial board still maintains that Al-Arian was unjustly fired.)

Robert Friedman, who wrote the unsigned editorial, says it was based on new information aired by NBC. But Robin Blumner, a member of the paper's editorial board, insists "Dateline" simply aired allegations already familiar to local readers. "It was all old news," says Blumner, who lobbied unsuccessfully to have the wording of the Al-Arian editorial toned down. (The fact is, one year earlier the Tribune had written about the information Emerson used for his "Dateline" segment.)

The final media players in the Al-Arian debacle were the local Tampa talk radio jocks, who vilified Al-Arian for months. "The Clear Channel stations, especially 970 AM [WFLA] led the charge against Al-Arian," reports Bob Lorei, news director at Tampa's WMNF. Clear Channel is the largest owner of radio stations in America, with approximately 1,200 outlets nationwide, and eight in Tampa.

WFLA host Tedd Webb highlighted his ignorance of the case when he stated publicly that ABC turned to "a professor from USF" to secure a bin Laden interview. (Webb was presumably referring to Hamdi, who is not "a professor from USF.") He has also echoed Emerson's claim that "the terrorist cell operating at the University of South Florida was the largest ... in the world."

Than why no arrests? Webb had a conspiracy theory to explain that: "In an effort to bring peace in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians," the FBI never made a move on Al-Arian.

But Webb was the soul of journalistic probity compared to his R-rated Clear Channel colleague Todd Clem, better known as Bubba the Love Sponge. Even before Al-Arian appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor," Bubba was falsely telling Tampa listeners that Muslim students at USF had been seen celebrating the Sept. 11 attacks. University spokesman Michael Reich says the school called the station and spoke to representatives in the newsroom who conceded they knew the accusations were not true but that they had nothing to do with Bubba's program. The University's general counsel office then contacted Clear Channel's station manager, but to no avail. Bubba continued making the bogus claim, even insisting he had a videotape to prove it. He never did produce a tape. WXTB program director Brad Hardin did not return calls seeking comment.

(Even as the horrific events of Sept. 11 were unfolding, Bubba and his morning crew on WXTB managed to find moments of humor. Watching live TV shots of the World Trade Center engulfed in flames, Bubba suggested they crank call and tell workers there, "In case you guys don't know it, the building's on fire!" One sidekick joked, "You won't be able to go to Windows on the World for lunch today!")

One week after the terrorist attacks Bubba called a local doctor's office on the air and accused him of making anti-American comments. Three hundred angry Bubba listeners deluged the doctor with calls that morning, and his office was forced to close early. Unfortunately, the shock jock had the wrong man.

Then, after Bubba spent one October morning insulting Al-Arian on the air, the professor was hit with a wave of hate e-mails.

One would not think that Bubba the Love Sponge's role in fomenting a campaign of ignorant, hate-filled e-mails against a tenured professor would be something that University of South Florida administrators would highlight. But Jack Wheat, USF's special assistant to the president, recently answered an e-mail from a Salon reader who complained about the school's decision to fire Al-Arian with the following remarkable communication:

"Thank you for your message. Unfortunately, a good number of Americans do believe that he is speaking for the University. We have received hundreds of communications indicating that from people whose mastery of syntax and argumentation suggest that they are quite intelligent. More troubling have been the barrage of computer viruses sent by people who are intelligent but warped. But most troubling have been the death threats, often stimulated by local media personalities such as Bubba the Love Sponge, that have breached the safety of the learning environment. Dr. Al-Arian has violated the professional obligations that are clearly delineated in the contract negotiated by the faculty union and the State University System of Florida."

Wheat could not be reached for comment.

Al-Arian's battle to get his job back at USF will likely end up in the courts. Perhaps while his attorneys examine the university's egregious behavior, they should train their attention on some of America's biggest media players as well.

2:31 AM  

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