The federal police wearing bulky flak jackets were in black. The bomb barricades filled with reclaimed water and ringing the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa were bright yellow. The agents in Plant Park along the banks of the Hillsborough River pretended to fish while talking into their wrist microphones.
Under extraordinary security that caught even federal District Judge James S. Moody Jr. by surprise, the Sami Al-Arian trial began in earnest on Mon., June 6, more than two years after Al-Arian and three of his friends and associates were indicted on 52 counts of terrorism-related charges.
The weird thing is that despite all this heightened security, I found myself parked on Monday afternoon in a $3-a-day lot directly behind a car driven by Ghassan Ballut, one of Al-Arian's co-defendants accused of being major U.S. players in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Ballut is out on bail, but as I got in my vehicle and he got in his, I had to wonder: How dangerous is this purported terrorist, really, beyond the remote chance that he might accidentally back into my pickup truck?
On Day One of the trial that is expected to last at least nine months, the uplink masts of local television news trucks lined E. Cass Street near the courthouse like whaling ships in old New Bedford. Fox News broadcast live every hour on the hour from the opposite corner, where equipment, wires and camp chairs covered the sidewalk. Al-Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks had correspondents on scene, as did the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and New York Times. The Tampa Tribune's Michael Fechter appeared on Fox's O'Reilly Factor that night; Al-Arian foe John Loftus made Fox appearances throughout the day.
Once again, Tampa found itself at the center of national media attention. At least this time it ain't for beautiful blond teachers who sleep with their students or young children abducted and killed by sexual predators.
It's fortunate that these out-of-town media were here, however, because some of the most interesting revelations in the first week of Al-Arian and his co-defendants - Ballut, Sameeh Hammoudeh and Hatim Fariz - never saw the light of day in local daily print. They include:
Nahla Al-Arian, Sami's wife, being identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case by Assistant U.S. Attorney Walter Furr in his opening statement. She has not been charged in the case. This tantalizing tidbit found its way into a New York Sun story by Josh Gerstein ("Mr. Furr said she used codes to relay messages for the group on two occasions," he wrote) and into the nightly local Fox 13 news broadcast by Warren Elly. The Orlando Sentinel reported a strange little moment that occurred after Moody had sent jurors home Monday at the end of that day's opening statements from Furr and William Moffitt, Al-Arian's attorney. The newspaper wrote, "U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. surprised Moffitt at 4:30 p.m. when he asked the attorney whether he planned to put Al-Arian on the stand. Moffitt said he was not sure but that the judge and jurors should let the wiretaps speak for themselves." Normally, that kind of question wouldn't come until the defense gets ready to present its case - which is likely at least six months away.
Most interesting, however, was the Grover Norquist connection.
Norquist is one of the top Republican free market advocates, with the ear of Karl Rove and direct access to the White House. He runs Americans for Tax Reform, a powerful think tank and lobbying group.
According to Moffitt, Norquist helped Al-Arian gain access to the Bush 2000 presidential campaign as he lobbied for a change in the nation's immigration laws regarding the use of secret evidence. Ironically, it was secret evidence gathered since 1991 that Bush's Justice Department used to indict Al-Arian in 2003.
In Moffitt's opening statement in defense of the former University of South Florida computer sciences professor, Al-Arian was portrayed as a political "power broker" whose lobbying work led him into the world of presidential politics and who may well have tipped the balance in the close 2000 campaign by urging the nation's 5 million Muslims to vote for Bush.
Here is the complete tale of Al-Arian's journey into Republican politics, which has been reported in Israeli media but mostly ignored here in the United States (only the St. Petersburg Times' former Washington, D.C., bureau chief Mary Jacoby got to this part of the story, in a 2003 report that - strangely - was run on the front of the features section.)
According to Moffitt, as the government worked hard to deport Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, largely on the basis of secret reports, Al-Arian became very involved in advocating for the law to be changed to prohibit the use of such evidence. He found some willing participants in this cause: Congressman David Bonior (now the House minority whip), along with Republicans Bob Barr and Spencer Abraham, were atop a group of about 120 members who co-sponsored the Secret Evidence Repeal Act of 1999.
But Al-Arian needed help on the presidential level as well. Then-President Bill Clinton had not been a natural fit for America's Muslims, as some of his closest allies were strongly pro-Israel. How would George W. Bush be to Muslims?
Al-Arian ended up meeting with Khaled Saffuri, the head of the Islamic Institute in Washington, and Norquist, who founded the institute and whose offices share the same address. The Islamic Institute, now called the Islamic Free Market Institute Foundation, reflects Norquist's strong conservative economic principles and connects the Muslim community (some other conservatives allege it is the "radical Muslim" community only) to the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers.
"In 2000, there was a hotly contested election," Moffitt told the jury. How would American Muslims vote for president?
Al-Arian looked for a signal. He and his family had already posed with Bush in March 2000 during a whistlestop at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. Moffitt said Al-Arian got the confirmation that Bush would be for Muslims - and against the use of secret evidence - in the second presidential debate on October 11, 2000, when the candidates were asked about racial profiling.
"Secondly," Bush the candidate said, "there is other forms of racial profiling that goes on in America. Arab-Americans are racially profiled in what is called secret evidence. People are stopped, and we have to do something about that. My friend, Senator Spencer Abraham of Michigan, is pushing a law to make sure that Arab-Americans are treated with respect. So racial profiling isn't just an issue at local police forces. It's an issue throughout our society."
Al-Arian worked to elect Bush. In Florida, where Bush won by less than 600 votes, just about any group that worked for his election can claim they made the difference. Al-Arian is no different, and he has laid claim to electing Bush. Norquist has, too. According to the Jerusalem Post, "Norquist was quick to claim after the 2000 elections that 'George W. Bush owes his election to the Muslim vote.'" Norquist was later given an award by the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedoms, whose president was Al-Arian.
In 2001, after Bush was elected, Al-Arian attended a White House meeting with Karl Rove.
"He was probably the Palestinian most known in political circles," Moffitt told jurors. "Sami became a power broker." He was all over Capitol Hill and meeting with numerous congressmen at the same time the FBI was wiretapping his phones and would, or should, have been aware of his alleged relations with Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Neither Norquist nor the White House responded to requests for comment about their relationships with Al-Arian.
For Moffitt, and for some in the community, the idea that the FBI had real concerns about Al-Arian and yet let him meet with everybody in Washington strains credulity.
"How does that happen?" Moffitt asked jurors. "This man who is a danger to our national security? You think anybody ever thought that Dr. Al-Arian represented a violent threat to the United States? They knew that Dr. Al-Arian wasn't a threat to anybody. Common sense tells you that."