"The Prime-time Smearing of Sami Al-Arian"

By Eric Boehlert

Published January 29, 2002 8:38PM (EST)

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I am writing in response to the Salon.com article of Jan. 19, 2002, by Eric Boehlert, titled "The Prime-time Smearing of Sami Al-Arian."

By way of refreshing memories, Al-Arian is a professor (his discipline is computer science) at the University of South Florida in Tampa who according to court documents has been a leading proponent of radical Middle Eastern politics. He helped found a think tank affiliated with USF -- World and Islam Studies Enterprises (WISE) -- that has been linked to Middle East radicals (another WISE founder went on to become head of the radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad). He has raised money for "the jihad effort in Palestine." And he has applauded terrorism while raining curses on the United States and Israel.

The Tampa Tribune's Michael Fechter began reporting on Al-Arian's activities in May 1995. The Tribune stands fully behind Fechter and his work. His has been a labor of years, in the course of which he has read thousands of pages of court documents and spoken with scores of individuals. His work in dozens of stories has met the highest standards and withstood the test of time.

We find it distressing that Mr. Boehlert did not exercise the same diligence in his reporting. For example, he writes that Al-Arian has "recently" been "fired" by USF. That is incorrect. The university's trustees recently recommended Al-Arian's dismissal. But the decision rests with USF President Judy Genshaft, who has said she won't render one in the Al-Arian case until the end of the month.

As his story was first posted at Salon.com, Mr. Boehlert also wrote that the Tampa Tribune is owned by the Tribune Company. A simple check of the Tribune's Web site or any of a number of other easily accessible public sources would have shown that the Tribune is owned by Media General. [This error subsequently was corrected, but not before the version of the story containing the incorrect reference had been replicated on a number of other Web sites.]

This is basic fact-checking, but Mr. Boehlert made both errors even before completing his first paragraph -- errors he used as springboards for his assertion that a number of media outlets, the Tribune included, "disgraced themselves -- and ruined an innocent professor's life." These errors cast a long shadow over the rest of Mr. Boehlert's article, which contains a long list of other mistakes.

For instance, Mr. Boehlert writes that Al-Arian "had been cleared of charges." That is untrue. No case has ever been brought against Al-Arian in court, and consequently there has never been an occasion to "clear" Al-Arian. What Mr. Boehlert seems to be referencing here is an immigration case brought against Al-Arian's brother-in-law. But Al-Arian was involved in that affair only as a witness, and while testifying he took the Fifth Amendment roughly 100 times (which, it bears noting, was his right).

Mr. Boehlert also writes that the accusations against Al-Arian "had been thoroughly investigated and rejected by USF." That, too, is untrue. There was an investigation. But the investigator was denied access to all relevant files and documents.

Mr. Boehlert alleges a connection between Fechter's stories and the decision by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to recommend against Al-Arian's application for U.S. citizenship, writing: "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." In fact, according to INS documents and court records, the sequence leading to this was set in motion well before the first of Fechter's Al-Arian stories. The INS said it rejected Al-Arian's application on grounds of moral character because he had registered to vote and then voted illegally.

Mr. Boehlert also writes of the St. Petersburg Times "agreeing the Tribune's charges against Al-Arian were weak and revolved around questionable journalism." In fact, the Times -- citing documents referenced in a segment of the NBC program "Dateline" and disclosed by Fechter more than a year earlier -- said in an editorial on Nov. 1, 2001:

"Many of Al-Arian's past statements and associations have raised suspicions that he was involved with terrorist organizations based in the Middle East. However, the fund-raising letter signed by Al-Arian, shown during the Oct. 28 telecast of NBC's dateline, is direct evidence of his active support for terrorism."

We also find it distressing that Mr. Boehlert frequently employs distortions or omissions of fact to make his argument. For example, Mr. Boehlert writes of "the role Fechter played in helping [Bill] O'Reilly's producers prepare for" an installment of Fox TV's "The O'Reilly Factor" on which Al-Arian made an appearance. Mr. Boehlert's wording would have readers believe that Fechter was an active participant in this process. In fact, O'Reilly's producers called Fechter (and others, presumably) as part of their research. Fechter pointed them to the record, and faxed them a limited number of documents that were part of it. Journalists worldwide do this for other journalists every day as a professional courtesy. It is not meant to substitute for original reporting. It is meant to help other reporters find and/or confirm information for themselves that is already in the public domain.

In addition, Mr. Boehlert writes of another journalist named John Sugg subsequently being contacted by Fox producers for a follow-up program on 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.'"

The insinuation is that O'Reilly's producers were somehow misled by Fechter, and that Fechter therefore was to blame for Al-Arian's subsequent "firing," which of course hasn't happened. What is missing is corroboration of this from O'Reilly's producers. What is also missing is that Sugg is a former Tampa Tribune employee who made a hobby of Tribune-bashing for several years afterward as the editor of a small weekly alternative newspaper in Tampa.

Mr. Boehlert writes that Fechter "seemed to be an odd choice" to write the Al-Arian story because he was a "county news reporter [who] wrote crime stories, covered local city council politics and monitored neighborhood action groups." What is missing here is that Fechter's beat was USF, where Al-Arian worked and where he helped found WISE.

And Mr. Boehlert also omits or mischaracterizes evidence taken directly from court documents that is crucial to the issue of whether Al-Arian has worked on behalf of the radical Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In one instance, for example, Al-Arian is shown telling a 1991 rally in Chicago, "Let us damn America. Let us damn Israel. Let us damn their allies until death." In another, he is introduced at a 1991 rally in Cleveland as head of "the active arm of the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine." And in a third, he is shown to have written a 1995 fund-raising letter 10 days after a double suicide bombing by the Islamic Jihad in Israel in which 18 people were killed. Al-Arian's letter references the "two mujahidin martyred for the sake of God" and asks for donations "so that operations such as these can continue" (Mr. Boehlert seems to suggest that this was an appeal for charity).

Finally, we find it distressing that Mr. Boehlert repeatedly uses hyperbole to press his argument. He declares Al-Arian to be "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." He accuses the Tribune of joining "an ignorant, alarmist crusade." He writes that "Fechter breathlessly reported that Al-Arian had raised money for Islamic groups that had killed hundreds of people around the world." This is language calculated to manipulate and inflame; it is never a substitute for hard-nosed reporting.

Errors, distortions, omissions, mud-slinging. Yet Mr. Boehlert professes himself to be calling to account others for "fudging the facts and ignoring the most rudimentary tenets of journalism in their haste to better tell a sinister story." We are left to wonder at the paradox.

Gil Thelen, Executive Editor, The Tampa Tribune

Eric Boehlert responds:

Thelen writes I was sloppy to report Al-Arian had been "fired" by the University of South Florida: The university's trustees had simply recommended Al-Arian's dismissal. True, but the move was widely interpreted as a firing at the time, and was reported that way by the Associated Press, CNN and the Orlando Sentinel. Even Thelen's own paper, the Tampa Tribune, recently reported that "University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft fired Sami Al-Arian last month."

He is right in pointing out Salon misidentified the Tribune's corporate owner. Salon corrected that error less than 20 hours after it was posted. By contrast, last October the Tribune painted Al-Arian as an unrepentant radical when it informed readers he'd made hateful, anti-Israel remarks in 1998. Instead, those comments were made 14 years ago. It's been 100 days and the Tribune has yet to correct that egregious error.

Thelen argues Al-Arian was never charged with anything so therefore he can't be cleared. That's disingenuous spin, because the entire premise of the Tribune's crusade against Al-Arian is that the USF-associated Islamic think tank and a separate charity organization he founded were linked to Palestinian terrorists. After examining those charges in a case involving Al-Arian's colleague and brother-in-law, here's what immigration judge Judge R. Kevin McHugh wrote in 2000: "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."

If that's not clearing Al-Arian of the charges I don't know what is. And perhaps that's why to this day no Tribune reporter has printed McHugh's quote in full.

Thelen also continues the Tribune's tradition of belittling USF's 1996, 200-page report on the Al-Arian affair. At the urging of faculty and community members, USF's president tapped William Reece Smith, former president of the American Bar Association, to lead an investigation. After conducting 59 interviews and looking at "hundreds of documents," Smith, like Judge McHugh, also found "no evidence" to suggest there were terrorist links to Al-Arian. Again, it's a finding which completely contradicts the Tribune's reporting.

Regarding the St. Petersburg Times, both that paper and the Miami Herald have raised serious doubts about the Tribune's reporting on the topic of Al-Arian. The Herald concluded the Tampa newspaper had ignored "perfectly innocent" interpretations of activity, instead opting for the assumption that "extremely dark forces were on the prowl."

The Tribune reported Michael Fechter did help Bill O'Reilly's producers prepare for their interview with Al-Arian. That's not in dispute. What is in dispute, though, is whether he simply "pointed them to the record," as Thelen suggests. If that's the case, then why didn't Fechter ever tell O'Reilly producers that a judge had examined all the allegations of terrorist activity and found nothing to substantiate them? That's a pretty stunning omission if Fechter was only trying, in Thelen's words, "to help other reporters find and/or confirm information for themselves that is already in the public domain." It would be less stunning if Fechter was trying to interest a cable news outlet in an unproven story that he'd never been able to take national.

Finally, in my story, I wrote Fechter "seemed an odd choice" to write about the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, not an "odd choice" to write about Al-Arian, as Thelen tries to suggest.

Eric Boehlert

I was very disturbed to hear of your recent article regarding Sami Al-Arian and particularly concerned by your portrayal of him as an innocent professor being smeared by the prime-time media.

As a researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, I met Sami no less than four times between 1989 and 1992. For your information, Professor Al-Arian was the organizer of five conferences (held in Chicago 1988-1992) sponsored by his own organization, the Islamic Committee for Palestine, and as far as I can determine, I was the only "Westerner" to attend these conferences (usually about 800 people).

During this time, I had the opportunity to observe the interaction between Sami, the speakers and attendees to these conferences. For your information, just a few of these included Sheik Rahman, better known as the blind Sheik and convicted for his participation in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, Sheik Abdulaziz Odah, the spiritual leader of Islamic Jihad, and a regular visitor to Tehran when he was not spending time in the United States. The Conference chairman was none other than the future leader of Islamic Jihad, a known terrorist organization.

Other speakers included a member of the Iranian parliament (at a time when this country did not maintain relations with Iran), a member of the Egyptian Brotherhood, the same organization responsible for the death of President Anwar Sadat, and a member of the Jordanian Parliament who was later convicted of attempting to overthrow King Hussein. In addition to participants from the United States, additional speakers came from the Sudan, Somalia and other countries known to be unfriendly to our own.

Needless to say much of the rhetoric centered upon Israel, and the "head of the Zionist snake" being located in the U.S. Numerous books and merchandise were available including items comparing Zionism with Nazism and blaming American policy for Muslim problems in the Middle East.

Although neither I nor the Simon Wiesenthal Center take a position on the firing of Sami Al-Arian, or the circumstances surrounding it, I will state that the conferences were booked under the name of the computer science department at USF.

Additional statements by Salon.com have indicated that much of the evidence against Mr. Al-Arian is old. This I do not understand. At a time when the newly created office of Homeland Security is doing all it can to protect this country, should not all individuals and links that may lead not only to Islamic Jihad, but possibly al-Qaida, be investigated thoroughly?

Rick Eaton, Senior Researcher, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles

By Salon Staff

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