Smoke and Mirrors

The Tampa Tribune latest allegations against Sami Al-Arian rely on unnamed sources and no documentation.

With tension escalating in the Middle East and U.S Attorney General John Ashcroft rounding up Muslim men by the thousands here at home, it seems that The Tampa Tribune couldn't resist taking another jab at Tampa's favorite Palestinian punching bag. Last Sunday the front-page, above-the-fold headline read: "Israel Ties Al-Arian to Jihad Board." The headline was like those phony $10,000 checks car dealers send out to suck in customers: sensational and grossly misleading.

While one might expect to read about concrete evidence against Al-Arian released by the Israeli government, the article actually delivers unnamed sources and a tepid admission that Al-Arian may not have broken any laws.

Tribune reporter Michael Fechter wrote that anonymous "former and current senior Israeli intelligence officials" told him that Al-Arian was part of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's "governing council" called Majlis Shura. According to the anonymous officials, Al-Arian even traveled to Damascus and Tehran for meetings, dropping off a computer to the PIJ's leader on his way.

These covert sources aren't exactly sure when the council was formed or how many people are on it, but they do know that it offered "advice" to the terrorist organization. These sources then go on to state that Al-Arian's role "was in political ideology and fundraising, not Jihad operations."

In a sidebar, the Tribune explained that they do not usually allow the use of unnamed sources. However they thought this story was, "of paramount importance to the public" so they made an exception. Not to worry though, the Tribune carefully weighed their source's credibility so that readers don't have to weigh it themselves. (And skeptical readers can't weigh it themselves.)

The Tribune assures readers that all of their sources had their stories straight, and documentation supported the "general framework" of their allegations. According to Fechter, however, his sources in Israel refused to show him documentation. "These were their claims," he said.

He didn't claim to have seen documentation in the article, he said.

But where exactly is the news of "paramount importance" in this front-page news story? Al-Arian has been under investigation since 1995 for his political ideology and his fundraising efforts on behalf of the Palestinian cause. Fechter was the reporter who wrote the series of articles on Al-Arian that started the investigation. Although the articles stirred up a lot of smoke, they have never yielded any fire.

"I don't know whether to laugh or to condemn. It's ridiculous," Al-Arian said of the latest Tribune article.

Whether or not it's ridiculous depends on your perspective. Although there was virtually nothing new in the article — and certainly not enough to warrant front-page coverage — there have been some recent developments in the quest to burn Al-Arian.

It's not working.

Earlier this month, a lawsuit filed by former federal prosecutor John Loftus, alleging that Al-Arian was raising funds to send to terrorists, was dismissed by a Hillsborough Circuit Court judge. The judge gave Loftus 20 days to prove that he was personally injured by Al-Arian's alleged fundraising, a feat that will require Superman-like leaps of logic.

USF's stated intention to fire Al-Arian from his post as a professor of computer engineering after his appearance on FOX's O'Reilly Factor was also dealt a blow this month. The American Academy of University Professors, a highly respected academic organization, warned that the university would almost certainly be censured if they went through with the termination.

The group literally wrote the book on academic freedom and said that USF President Judy Genshaft would be guilty of violating that principle if Al-Arian is not returned to the classroom. If the university is censured, recruiting and retaining the top-notch talent needed to help the school evolve into the research giant of Genshaft's dreams will be tough. Even with the building of on-campus Greek housing.

Although the university's Spokesman Michael Reich and the chairman of its Board of Directors Dick Beard have asserted that the AAUP's opinion doesn't count, Genshaft has kept her mouth shut and Al-Arian is still cashing his pay checks.

So, what would prompt Israeli officials to divulge information so crucial to security that neither the sources' names nor their documentation could be disclosed? And what's with the U.S. government anyway? With this much proof, Al-Arian should be in prison.

When it comes to Middle Eastern politics everybody has an agenda. Palestinians, by and large, want a separate state. The European Union, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Nations want them to have one too. Secretary of State Colin Powell is talking about an interim Palestinian state and even President Bush has stated that statehood is a goal. Demonizing Palestinians does not hurt people who don't want to see that happen.

Of course, it's impossible to know where Fechter's sources stand because they aren't named and Fechter doesn't address the issue.

He does allude to the reason U.S. officials haven't arrested Al-Arian: that messy caveat due process. At the time of this article, the United States hasn't been renamed Ashcroft Land. U.S. courts still actually require tangible proof of a crime for a conviction. Undocumented evidence from unknown sources isn't enough.

When information about Al-Arian's activities was put before a judge in 1997, he found no evidence that a crime had been committed.

Of course there is documented evidence of Al-Arian's guilt, according to Fechter's sources. It's in Israel and the U.S. government is just too lazy to pick it up. Perhaps these shadowy sources are too afraid of having their names show up on a Fed-Ex receipt to mail it.

Nevertheless, the U.S. intelligence community may be too ignorant to understand it anyway, they said. That's a pretty safe criticism to make in the wake of recently publicized FBI and CIA screw-ups prior to Sept. 11.

Lest all the news revolve around Al-Arian, a tidbit about his brother-in-law Mazen Al Najjar appeared in the article too. According to Fechter's sources, as "recently" as 1994, terrorist suspects arrested in Israel were found to have Al-Najjar's phone number in their possession. They were going to call him at home to let him know how the terror was going.

"It isn't clear whether this allegation is part of a package of secret evidence that was used by immigration officials to jail Al-Najjar as a national security threat in 1997," Fechter wrote.

It's more likely that his articles were what were in that secret evidence file. According to Al-Najjar's attorney David Cole who has freed more than 10 men held on secret evidence, newspaper clippings are a hush file staple.

Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh reviewed the secret evidence used to jail Al-Najjar in 1997 and used it to set him free in 2000, stating that the government had failed to prove its case. Al-Najjar was arrested again last November when the INS issued a final deportation order, but since he's a stateless Palestinian, there's no place to deport him to. He remains in solitary confinement at Coleman Federal Penitentiary while his lawyers argue that the government has exceeded the six months they had to deport him, charge him with something or let him go.

"What they're writing about him couldn't be further from the truth," said Al-Arian.

Although Fechter flew all the way to Israel to speak with his secret sources for the story, he didn't drive to North Tampa to take a look at Al-Arian's passport to see if his secret sources were correct about Al-Arian's travel to Tehran or Damascus for Jihad get-togethers, said Al-Arian's attorney Robert McKee. He didn't even ask to see it, he said.

Of course Al-Arian could have offered up the passport when he read the list of questions Fechter sent for his response but he chose not to. For every piece of proof he gives up, said Al-Arian in an interview with the Planet, journalists will always want more.

Fechter concluded his article with quotes from Reuven Paz, director of the Project for the Research of Radical Islam in Haifa and they were the most telling comments in the article.

"Whatever has happened in Tampa was more about ideology and politics than directing operations," Paz told Fechter.

The same could be said of the Tribune's coverage.

Contact Staff Writer Rochelle Renford at 813-248-8888, ext. 163, or [email protected].

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