From the White House to the jailhouse

If the government has long known that Sami Al-Arian was supporting terrorism, why did the controversial professor win an invitation from Karl Rove?

Published February 25, 2003 8:09PM (EST)

The arrest last week of the University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian on terrorism charges quickly became an occasion for gloating among commentators on the right -- their latest opportunity to tar as a traitor anyone who advocates due process and minority rights during the "war on terrorism."

John Podhoretz, for instance, launched a broadside in the New York Post against writers who have raised questions about the Al-Arian case, including the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof and Salon's Eric Boehlert, calling them "idiots."

Mr. Podhoretz, here are a couple names you'll now need to add to your "idiot" list: George Bush and Karl Rove.

That's because a little problem has emerged for the "dare call it treason" crowd: In June 2001, it turns out, Al-Arian paid a visit to the Bush White House -- apparently as the specially invited guest of Bush's political guru, Rove, who was meeting with a Muslim-American group as part of a strategy to line up Islamic support.

That visit followed Al-Arian's dedicated campaigning for Bush in the 2000 election. Given Bush's much disputed, micron-thin margin of a few hundred votes in Florida, the professor's efforts to get out the Muslim vote for Bush could well have tipped the national election's scales (as Al-Arian himself has boasted, Newsweek reports).

This information has put the gloaters in an uncomfortable bind. On the one hand, they tell us that the U.S. government has known for years that Al-Arian was supporting terrorism, but that it just couldn't assemble a good case against him because its hands were tied by bureaucratic restrictions that have finally been removed in the post-9/11 world.

But if that's true, why on earth did the Bush administration host Al-Arian like a political insider? If the evidence against the man was so clear, why wasn't it plunked down on an Oval Office desk with a big red warning along the lines of "Don't even think of letting this mad bomber in the gate"?

There are really two Al-Arian cases. Case No. 1 comprises the specific issue of whether Al-Arian is guilty of the charges the government has made. Case No. 2 poses the wider question of how U.S. society will face the challenge, post-9/11, of defining "terrorism" in a way that protects the American people without undermining our society.

Certainly, the charges in Case No. 1 are complex and serious. Is Al-Arian the ardent but nonviolent Palestinian nationalist he says he is, or the terrorist ring-leader the government says he is? If he is proven responsible for organizing or funding suicide bombings, then plainly he should be locked up. That determination, of course, is one for a jury to make -- assuming that by the time Al-Arian comes to trial, Ashcroft, Bush and company haven't found a way to eliminate that quaint vestige of the U.S. system of justice.

In the meantime, the strange saga of Al-Arian should remind us all that defining terrorism is a far more complex problem than our current president's blunt moral compass allows. After all, Bush's own most trusted advisors, with all their intelligence resources, embraced the same Al-Arian whom they now seek to convict. Should Rove now show up on an FBI watch list for consorting with known terrorists? (And can anyone doubt that if 9/11 hadn't happened, Rove would still be courting the Al-Arian vote?)

If the definition of terrorism were as simple a black-and-white matter as Bush's speeches claim it to be, our strategy would be as simple as his "hunt 'em down, smoke 'em out" rhetoric. But of course, "hunting 'em down" has proven easier said than done even in the case of those al-Qaida leaders responsible for the 9/11 attacks, whose names we know and whose guilt is widely acknowledged. And once the "war on terrorism" expands beyond the war on al-Qaida, it becomes a murky, labyrinthine landscape, one where monochrome certainties are not only unreliable but also downright dangerous.

Terrorism is not a fixity. The organization Al-Arian is accused of being an organizer for, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was legal in the United States until outlawed by an executive order from President Clinton in 1995. And the history books are full of examples of yesterday's terrorists becoming tomorrow's politicians. Some of them have even become prime ministers.

None of this has much bearing on Al-Arian Case No. 1, the one to be tried in court to determine the professor's guilt. But it does provide further cautionary evidence for the second case, the one in which American society is being put to the test.

Even the Bush administration -- which holds all the intelligence cards in its hands -- sometimes treats as friends the same people it later throws in jail as terrorist supporters. After this stunning example of inconsistency, is anyone still naive enough to think that a "war on terrorism" can be prosecuted according to simple-minded homilies about good and evil?

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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George W. Bush Terrorism White House