John F. Sugg was editor of the Weekly Planet in the 1990s, and group senior editor of Creative Loafing Newspapers until he retired in 2008. In his tenure, he reported extensively on the Sami Al-Arian story. After recent negative news broke about terrorism "expert" Steven Emerson, Sugg contacted CL about filing this post.
Steven Emerson, a self-styled terrorism expert, is a guy who had a profound and caustic impact on Tampa for more than a decade. Emerson has had much less of an impact on another city, Nashville, although his corrosive brand of often-inaccurate smear jobs recently slithered into Tennessee.
Still, Nashvilles citizens know a whole lot more about Emerson than folks in Tampa, despite his relatively recent arrival on the Tennessee hate-Muslim soapbox, where he jostles for the limelight with loopy religious fanatics and just plain old-fashioned Southern bigots.
Why that imbalance of knowledge about Emerson? The answer lies in a horrible miscarriage of journalism committed over many years by The Tampa Tribune, a series of atrocities the Trib could easily correct by just providing a dash of fair and accurate reporting, something history indicates the newspaper wont do. Nashville should be grateful that it has a newspaper, The Tennessean, which unlike the Trib will fearlessly dig out the truth.
In tandem with his vassal reporter at the Tampa Trib, Michael Fechter, Emerson waged a decade-long jihad against a professor at the University of South Florida, Sami Al-Arian, accused by Emerson and Fechter of being a terrorist mastermind. Emerson and Fechter were backed by a shadowy network of former federal agents and foreign spooks, notably a disinformation specialist for Israels ultra-right Likud party named Yigal Carmon and a controversial ex-FBI official named Oliver Buck Revell and a lot of money whose origins have never been revealed.
However, where their information came from was clear. As the great Israeli newspaper Haaretz explained before Al-Arians 2005 federal trial: Israel owns much of the copyright for the case; a well-informed source termed the prosecution an American-Israeli co-production. The Americans are running the show, but behind the scenes it was the Israelis who for years collected material (and) transmitted information How did they transmit information? In part, via secret evidence slipped to our federales, evidence and accusers Al-Arian wasnt allowed to confront (who needs that nasty old Sixth Amendment?). But reporters were also conduits for scurrilous intelligence claims. Fechter himself wrote that "former and current senior Israeli intelligence officials" loaded his stories with information. Those allegations, many ludicrous on their face, were rejected by a federal jury, despite a highly prejudiced judge and rulings that, if they had been issued against Martin Luther King Jr. would have prevented him from mentioning Jim Crow in his defense.
Over the years, while a Weekly Planet and Creative Loafing editor, I had a great deal of fun exposing Emerson, and the prevarications by Fechter and the federal government. I tried to put into context what the anti-Muslim crusaders were up to. I joined a rather elite cadre of journalists that had tangled with Emerson including famed investigative reporters Seymour Hersh, Robert I. Friedman and Robert Parry, who provided me with insight into Emersons real agenda.
Emerson filed two bogus lawsuits against me, the Weekly Planet (AKA Creative Loafing) and an AP reporter who had told me about questions he had had over the provenance of a document Emerson gave the news service. We obtained a court order that would have forced Emerson to produce real proof of his allegations and he knew we were digging into who he really was and who paid his bills so he ran away from the fight he started; the good guys (me, for example) prevailed.
Its noteworthy that a number of dispassionate analysts had observations similar to mine. New York University scholar Zachary Lockman, for example, (as quoted on Right Web) wrote in 2005: "[Emerson's] main focus during the 1990s was to sound the alarm about the threat Muslim terrorists posed to the United States. By the end of that decade Emerson was describing himself as a 'terrorist expert and investigator' and 'Executive Director, Terrorism Newswire, Inc.' Along the way, critics charged, Emerson had sounded many false alarms, made numerous errors of fact, bandied accusations about rather freely, and ceased to be regarded as credible by much of the mainstream media . The September 11 attacks seemed to bear out Emerson's warnings, but his critics might respond that even a stopped clock shows the right time twice a day.
Again, its sadly significant that the Trib never even provided such mild doses of context about its primary source, Emerson, in its inflammatory, intentionally erroneous and misleading, and often racist diatribes against Al-Arian. The Trib still gives Emerson ink never questioning his claims and guilt-by-association-and-innuendo tactics, and never vetting his background, associations, financing and motives.
Some insight on Emersons millions has now been provided by The Tennessean, Nashvilles daily newspaper. MSNBCs Keith Olbermann, citing the Tennesseans reports, on Oct. 26 awarded Emerson his nightly Worst Person in the World citation. Olbermann expressed regret that the network had previously used Emerson as a chattering head on terrorism topics. (Similarly, CBS did not renew its contract with Emerson after he claimed that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing had "a Middle Eastern trait" because it was carried out "with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible." That was a big Oops.)