The two star witnesses never took the stand at the trial of Sami Al-Arian. That's just terrible for those seeking courtroom entertainment — like slicing Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort out of the novels. All you're left with are ancillary bit-part characters.
Fortunately, one of the stars — the ersatz "expert" on terrorism, Steven Emerson — likely will get a chance to testify someday soon. It will happen in Boston, in a sequel with remarkable similarities to the Tampa case. Prominent Muslim leaders from the Islamic Society of Boston have sued Emerson, several reporters and their allies for libel, charging that a conspiracy fabricated stories about terrorist connections in an effort to prevent construction of a large mosque.
Before we head to Beantown, let's sharpen the picture about what's playing in Tampa. The absence of the other leading player — Al-Arian himself, the arch-villain or nationalist hero, depending on your POV — was a matter of strategy. Al-Arian's lawyers contend the government didn't prove squat, at least in terms of showing the Palestinian academic actually committed something approaching a crime. Thus, no reason for him to testify.
Al-Arian desperately wanted to testify — indeed, his yearning to tell his side caused friction on the defense team. And he was willing to brave the prosecutors' cross-examination, which undoubtedly would have been laden with fact-anemic smear and guilt-by-association, as has been their style in court.
"This prosecution is un-American," Linda Moreno, one of the professor's attorneys, told me. "It strikes at the heart of our Constitution and the protections all persons in this great country enjoy. The government's case is built on the words of Dr. Al-Arian and nothing else. This is an indictment by innuendo and, in this country, we require proof beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has occurred. There has been no such showing in this case. Dr. Al-Arian has battled for the hearts and minds of Americans and his weapons have been his words and ideas."
That's something Al-Arian's real foes — the Likud extremists in Israel — can't abide. So, beginning more than a decade ago, an all-out campaign to stifle Arab and Muslim voices in America began.
As for the absence of Emerson in the prosecution's case, spectators have a right to wonder: Since he claims to have unearthed an ungodly conspiracy (against Israel, not America, but don't let such quibbling get in the way of hating all Arabs), why didn't the federal prosecutors, with all of the flourish of Eliot Ness, bring in such a renowned "authority" on the case as Emerson?
One probable answer: Nothing would have been better insurance of Al-Arian's acquittal than Emerson having to reveal the truth — about himself, his motives for launching the anti-Arab pogrom, and his backers.
As one former AP reporter, Fred Bayles, once told me after he backed off using Emerson as a source in a terrorism series: "My opinion was that the real story wasn't about Muslim plots but who the hell is Steve Emerson."
Unlike Al-Arian, Emerson would definitely be afraid of cross-examination. In 2000 he sued the Planet, former AP reporter Richard Cole and myself for libel for our coverage of him in connection with the Al-Arian case. But he dropped the suit when he couldn't hide behind lame excuses — that his mission was one of "national security," for example — and was ordered by a judge to produce a few real facts supporting his claims that he was libeled.
His well-honed strategy is to recruit front men, often reporters, and inject poison into the public's perception about Arabs and Muslims. That's what he did with The Tampa Tribune.
The real story? He's a shill for the cabal of neo-con war-makers in Washington, many with strong allegiances to Israel; that country's disinformation agents; wacko fundamentalist Armageddonist crusaders; and would-be oil potentates. Emerson's patrons on Capitol Hill give him a platform, as they're doing this week in a Senate panel looking at Saudi Arabia. But that doesn't make him credible.
So, it's fitting that he has another appearance scheduled — as a defendant in the Boston lawsuit.
The similarities between the Tampa and Boston cases are, as I said, remarkable. Emerson becomes the secret source for a reporter in need of a story. Articles appear that weave an intricate association of people. Many of the claims are questionable, and many, many others outright bogus. The crusade builds steam with attempts to stir hatred and potential violence toward Muslims — depicting, as in Tampa, homes of mosque leaders.
In vintage agit-prop — again, oh so similar to the Tribune's reporting — a Boston newspaper featured a picture of Osama bin Laden next to a rendering of a proposed mosque.
Lawsuits are, well, lawsuits. Many claims in litigation are just pure rubbish — as Emerson's were against the Planet. But in Boston, a previous incarnation of the Islamic Society lawsuit resulted in one of the defendants, Fox TV station WFXT, releasing 6,000 pages of documents. In often grinding detail, the e-mails, agendas, hand-written notes and typed memos suggest a conspiracy to stop the building of a large mosque. The tactic, as in Tampa, is to claim "ties" to terrorism.
"[T]he other Defendants repeatedly drew upon, repeated and promoted [Emerson's] biased, false and misleading statements," the Boston complaint states. "Defendants crossed the line from the proper exercise of their own civil liberties and free speech rights into an irresponsible 'media campaign' to further their explicit and false 'agenda of exposing the radical fundamentalist underpinnings of the Mosque and its leaders.'"
In many of the e-mails from reporter Jonathan Wells (initially spreading manure for the sensationalist Boston Herald, later for Fox), Emerson's name is blacked out — which the complaint argues is because of the "unsupportable nature of his statements."
Noteworthy, although Emerson thrives on publicity — especially since most responsible media, prior to 9/11, had shunned him — he refused to go on the record with Wells.
However, as the complaint asserts, Emerson is Wells' guy, telling the reporter that the Islamic Society of Boston is "under investigation by [the Department] of Justice," which the Muslims contend is absolutely false, and which Emerson will likely now be forced to prove in court.
The media campaign screeches that one Muslim leader, psychiatrist Osama Kandil, is "under suspicion," based on an affidavit by a federal agent in a Virginia case. Yet, according to the complaint, "in its pages of pages of text that discuss the actions of numerous individuals and entities, the ... affidavit nowhere mentions Dr. Kandil."
According to the complaint, other "facts" in the media jihad stem from an assertion of an aged man suffering from severe dementia — who apparently answers everything "yes" — that Kandil and others are part of a terrorist group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Those blemishes don't stop Emerson from e-mailing Wells, gushing that the reporter's two-part series "is INCREDIBLE. [Justice Department] prosecutors have told me they consider them very important." It will be interesting to find out who these credulous prosecutors are.
News organizations are big on transparency nowadays. Call the Tribune and they'll recite the transparency mantra. Then ask them about Emerson.
Why so much innuendo about Al-Arian, and nary a word of journalistic skepticism about Emerson?
For more of Senior Editor John Sugg's reports on Emerson, see his blog, www.johnsugg.com.