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The FBI is on My Trail

They Want to Question Me About Lies Sami Al-Arian Allegedly Told, But What About the Lies Al-Arian’s Enemies Fed the Government and the Tampa Tribune?

by JOHN SUGG

"You’re all over the wiretaps," said the FBI agent who called me in mid-February. "We want to talk to you."

This was not the sort of phone call a journalist wants to receive. The case in question is that of fired University of South Florida professor (and accused terrorist mastermind) Sami Al-Arian.

The FBI agent spiced his appeal with the comment, "We don’t want to jam you, but … ." I’m not quite sure of his meaning. I guess it could be interpreted as: They don’t let us beat reluctant witnesses with rubber hoses any longer, but … .

I’d say it was an implied (although mild) bit of coercion.

No doubt I’m all over the wiretap, I observed to the agent, Kerry Myers, a nice guy, a good cop with whom I’ve dealt in the past. After all, I have covered the government’s relentless pursuit of Al-Arian for eight years and have talked to him, I’m sure, many hundreds of times. I’m writing a book, and I’ve spent endless hours learning about Islam, the arcane nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the histories of the groups in the region, the personalities. A lot of that process involves Al-Arian. I confess: I even once played horseshoes with Al-Arian in an effort to engage him in conversation.

I asked Myers why he wanted to talk to me.

He recited (apparently in violation of a gag order issued at federal prosecutors’ own request) some dialogue from the wiretaps, in which I discuss with Al-Arian what a government source had told me in the late 1990s about the federal agent who originally was chasing the USF Muslims. The source had said the agent, Barry Carmody, had a debilitating disease and was trying to make a bigger deal of the case than it was so that he could stay on the FBI payroll.

That corresponded with what a top federal prosecutor in Tampa had said to me — that the facts didn’t merit an indictment. And with what the FBI’s national counterterrorism chief, Bob Blitzer, had commented to me — that Al-Arian and his associates had broken no federal laws.

But I never printed this theory about Carmody because I knew the source, a now retired federal official, intensely disliked and distrusted Carmody. Now, however, I asked Myers if Carmody had really been ill, and he acknowledged that he had.

"We want to know your sources," he said. "Which agent told you about" Carmody? "Who are your sources" in the Justice Department and the FBI?

He can’t be serious, I mused.

It occurred to me while talking to Myers that the top federal lawman in Tampa, U.S. Attorney Paul Perez, had gotten some bad news only a day or so before. Perez didn’t get a federal judgeship — and my sources had told me he had thought he would. Moreover, he did not even get the courtesy of an interview from the judicial selection committee. Quite a slap.

Why?

I may have played a minor role.

I’ve written that working in Perez’s office is a prosecutor, Bob O’Neill, who owns a Hyde Park bar that for years has been raising money for Ireland’s Sinn Fein and its very, very, very terrorist arm, the Irish Republican Army. The IRA has killed several times the number of innocent civilians than the group Al-Arian is accused of supporting, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. O’Neill’s partner is unabashed in his support of the IRA.

It certainly points to hypocrisy inherent in the government’s case — that it prosecutes Al-Arian, holding the professor under despicably inhumane conditions in an attempt to break him, while one of the prosecutors is indisputably indulging in activities very similar to those alleged against the Muslims.

More important, my disclosures on O’Neill are the foundation for one of at least three complaints against Perez filed with the Justice Department in Washington. Investigators from Washington have been rolling into Tampa asking tough questions of Perez, so my sources say. Not hard to figure out why Perez’s judicial quest merited only a rebuff.

Would Perez be so vindictive as to unleash the FBI on me?

Another complaint against his office came from state Circuit Court Judge Greg Holder, who claims the U.S. Attorney’s Office scuttled an investigation of courthouse corruption.

(Perez, appointed in early 2002, would be one of a succession of law enforcement officials in Tampa who, curiously, don’t want to take on the powerfully corrupt, or corruptly powerful, judicial establishment.)

In 2001, as Holder was beginning to get uneasy about how seriously the U.S. Attorney’s Office was chasing the courthouse mob — and as he was making his discontent known, a document was slipped under a federal prosecutor’s door. That paper purported to show that Holder had plagiarized a research assignment needed to get a promotion in the Air Force Reserve.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office did nothing with the paper for a year — until Holder turned his unease into a formal complaint with the Justice Department, asserting that Tampa’s federal prosecutors had squelched the courthouse probe. Then, the allegedly plagiarized paper was sent to the Air Force, and Holder’s life has been hell ever since.

The Air Force first suspended Holder from duties as a military judge, then reinstated him. The Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission instituted action that could result in Holder losing his job — a hearing is pending. The JQC’s case is circumstantial, and most of the evidence so far has tended to vindicate Holder.

Interestingly, Perez won’t let any of his minions involved in the apparent smear job testify, nor will he open his files. His survival may well depend on keeping the lid on his office’s actions.

But Perez and the feds have friends — notably at The Tampa Tribune, which among other omissions has never reported that the U.S. Attorney was dissed in his attempt to become a federal judge. Nor has the daily ever reported on the substance of the complaints against Perez’s office — notably the one relating to O’Neill’s involvement with Sinn Fein/IRA.

More important, when the agents need someone to carry water for them, they know whom to call — the Trib. It’s the quo following years of quid from the feds.

On Feb. 22, the Trib printed a curious story. It had retained three "experts" to review the Holder case, and these people had concluded the judge was likely guilty. That conclusion was based on, as the daily recounted, "Occam’s Razor" — a medieval philosopher’s notion that the simplest solution that addresses all of the facts is likely correct.

The secret to getting a close shave by Occam is to control the facts. Here’s what the Trib didn’t tell you.

First, it tried to brush aside the importance of who leaked the allegedly plagiarized document. "It might not be relevant," the newspaper said, suggesting that the deed-doer was a commendable "whistleblower" rather than a "conspirator."

Did you get that? The identity of the person who slipped the knife between Holder’s ribs isn’t "relevant." This from a newspaper that once prided itself on uncovering real news.

More precisely, the Trib doesn’t want readers heading in that direction. Any conspiracy hinted at by the paper is limited to the courthouse crowd. The Trib isn’t about to consider that its friends, the federal prosecutors, might have a reason to "get" Holder.

The bulk of the Trib’s article claims that it would have been all but impossible for the cigar-chomping, ass-grabbing judges around the courthouse to have produced so perfect a fabrication as the allegedly plagiarized paper.

True. But who did have motive and the technical capability to frog up the document? Who had the knowledge of how, and the opportunity, to get it to an out-of-the-loop member of Perez’s own staff (thereby creating a Mafia-style gap in knowledge of the act)? Hmmm. Maybe someone doing Perez’s bidding?

Second, the key "expert" is recently retired FBI agent Joe Navarro. The newspaper tells you some of his credentials — but not the most interesting fact. For years, Navarro has been one of the team chasing Al-Arian. And, the feds have been furiously leaking their spin on the Palestinian professor through their media allies at the Trib. Indeed, the newspaper’s terrorism Svengali, Steve Emerson, knew about Al-Arian’s indictment long before Al-Arian did — and that information could only have originated from the feds.

(Navarro until he retired was partners with Myers, the agent who wants to know my sources. If these guys really are interested in which Justice employees are passing info to scribes, they might start asking the folks at the Trib. But, then, they already know the answers.)

Third, the Trib makes much of the fact that an initial Air Force investigator, David Leta, felt Holder was guilty. What the daily doesn’t say is that Leta, when not an Air Force reservist, is an assistant U.S. Attorney in Atlanta with close ties to his brethren in Tampa. It’s a clear conflict of interest, not that the Trib would clue you in.

So, with Holder, it seems like Perez may have indulged in retaliation, aided and abetted (as the lawmen say) by the Trib. His refusal to open his office to scrutiny underscores that suspicion.

Quite frankly, the Justice Department should demand transparency about complaints against Perez — if the feds want people to have faith in the justice system. And if there is substance — especially if it turns out Holder was a victim of dirty tricks — then Perez should be fired.

The Planet’s attorney, Dave Snyder, responded to the government that, no, I wouldn’t be revealing <sources.Snyder> also pointed out to the feds that they haven’t complied with any of their own rules about questioning reporters, beginning with the necessity to have the personal approval of Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Al-Arian’s chief prosecutor, Terry Zitek, apparently realizing that Myers had strayed from the reservation and was inviting sanctions for revealing contents of the wiretap, tried what looked like damage control. Zitek wrote Snyder that the government wasn’t primarily interested in my sources (but he didn’t preclude asking me about them once they started the third degree).

Zitek said, "The principal purpose of the requested interview is to determine whether Mr. Sugg has any relevant information …" about Paragraph 42 of Al-Arian’s indictment.

That paragraph states that the Muslims "did make false statements and misrepresent facts to representatives of the media to promote the goals of the" Islamic Jihad.

I’m more inclined to believe Myers as to the reason for his call, but here’s the context of Zitek’s statement:

Al-Arian has filed a motion to dismiss charges against him based mainly on the contention that what the government is really doing is attacking the First Amendment by criminalizing speech that advocates for the Palestinian cause.

"The indictment characterizes one side of [the Middle East conflict] as good and the other side as evil," Bill Moffitt, Al-Arian’s attorney, wrote in his motion. "While the indictment tracks the death of Israelis at the hands of Palestinians, it never references the deaths of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis. The indictment’s historical oversights provide a framework by which the U.S. attempts to criminalize legitimate political expression. It is clear that the express purpose of the indictment is to chill any and all support for the Palestinian cause and any additional advocacy in favor of the rights of Arabs."

That, of course, is what has been going on ever since faux journalist (and very real disinformation mouthpiece for Israel’s extreme right Likud party) Steve Emerson slithered into town and found a rock to hide under at the Trib.

Moffitt contends that the Palestinian groups have never targeted America. They may be a threat to Israel, but they’re not our problem, he says.

More to the point, for most of the time Al-Arian is alleged to have been connected to the Islamic Jihad, it would have been perfectly legal activity in the United States.

After years of screeching from Emerson and the Tribune, the feds couldn’t make a case — but they did pour lots of corrosive innuendo on the Bill of Rights. That changed only when the Bush regime managed to find a way to circumvent the Constitution and use foreign intelligence wiretaps, and after Israel provided what it claimed to be "intelligence." (It might be instructive to remember that a motto of Israel’s crack Mossad spy agency is: By way of deception, thou shalt do war. And to remember other recent episodes of foreign "intelligence" that didn’t stand up in the light of day.)

Where no indictment had been possible before, it now was, or at least that’s what the government wants us to believe.

The wiretaps, according to my Justice sources, are going to be very problematic for the government. (It wouldn’t be the first time. Remember the Aisenberg tapes? That’s another one of agent Myers’ cases. Hell, the government is in such a sorry state this time that it’s been forced to ask for Al-Arian’s help in translating Arabic faxes. The scholar’s attorney responded, tongue in cheek, by asking if the government was willing to pay for the services.)

And Israel, which has long sought to eradicate any Arab voice in America, has refused to allow scrutiny of its "intelligence," prompting Moffitt to demand of the prosecutors whether things have gotten so bad that we’re allowing a foreign power to dictate criminal proceedings in our courts.

What Zitek really wanted was something to shoot down Moffitt’s motion to dismiss. (Several weeks later, Myers approached at least two other reporters to question them about their conversations with Al-Arian. One of them is Planet editor Jim Harper, who covered the story for the St. Petersburg Times in the mid ’90s. Now following Zitek’s lead, Myers told Harper he was gathering information to support Paragraph 42 in the indictment. Harper, like any independent-minded journalist, declined to become a witness for the prosecution, and the Times has promised to back him.)But here’s my answer for all to see — if that’s really the reason for the fed’s inquiry:

There’s nothing that I know that could prove the guilt or innocence of Al-Arian and his co-defendants, and the government is aware of that.

Al-Arian refrained from answering some (but not many) questions that I have put to him over the years. I didn’t like that, but considering that Al-Arian has been a target of the Emerson-inspired government crusade for almost a decade, I can understand his reluctance to be absolutely forthcoming.

I had specifically asked Al-Arian about his role, if any, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He explained — and his account is consistent with academics and independent intelligence experts who have studied the Palestinian movements — that the "religious opposition" to the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization had spawned both political and militant branches. Similarly, Zionism has boasted eloquent advocates for peace — and it has produced terrorist outfits such as the Stern Gang, Irgun, the Unit 101 death squad (of which Ariel Sharon was a member), and in the United States, the groups associated with Meir Kahane.

Al-Arian clearly has political affinity with the "religious opposition" groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad (as is his First Amendment right). He has stated emphatically that while supporting the right of his people to oppose the occupation, he opposes killing innocent civilians.

While Al-Arian has stated opinions with which I disagree, sometimes vehemently, I have never caught him in a factual lie or intentional deception.

On the other hand, if Zitek and the government really want to prosecute someone for misleading the media and the public, why don’t they start with Emerson, his sidekicks and some of their own agents?

The government, in the early years of this case, repeatedly leaked incendiary "facts" that turned out to be bogus. For example, they used the Tribune to broadcast that documents on MacDill Air Force Base had been found among Al-Arian’s files — implying that he had some dastardly, perhaps lethal, purpose. The truth was that Al-Arian had twice, by invitation, addressed conferences at Central Command, and the documents were the handout materials from those events. (The Trib’s reporter, revealing his non-journalism motives, told me it wasn’t his job to question what those documents really were. Which meant, he saw his job as merely furthering the feds’ spin.)

Or, at a 2000 deportation hearing for Al-Arian’s brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, it became painfully clear that government agent Bill West repeatedly misrepresented facts (or exhibited extraordinary ignorance) under oath. For example, he said that all of the "martyrs" in the Palestinians’ uprising in the late 1980s and early 1990s were suicide bombers. The truth: None were.

The media were at the hearing. Maybe West misled them.

With Emerson, there’s a wealth of calumnies. As Harper reported in the Times, Emerson told the St. Petersburg Tiger Bay Club in February 1996 that Palestinian advocates at USF were involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Emerson promised proof "in the near term." The proof never came, and the Justice Department said it had no records supporting the allegation.

And, if misleading reporters merits a criminal investigation, consider that Associated Press reporters gave Emerson the heave-ho in a 1997 series on terrorism after they came to doubt the origin of material he gave them. Emerson responded with an eight-page rant to AP. In it, Emerson alleged that a wire service editor (and former Times scribe), Bob Port, had provided him with inside information about AP, specifically that another editor had a "vendetta" against Emerson.

Last September, Port wrote, in response to questions from me, "I never told Mr. Emerson that anyone at the AP had a vendetta against him, nor did any vendetta exist."

Port has a lot better reputation for truth-telling than does Emerson.

Emerson’s researcher — until a rupture two years ago — was the truly weird Rita Katz, who claimed in her book Terrorist Hunter that federal agents were bowled over by her sexual appeal. She also wrote that an individual left Tampa the "next day" after a leader of the Islamic Jihad was assassinated. The truth is that he left almost a half-year before then, but Katz’s deception puts a far more sinister cast on events in Tampa. At the very least, it arguably was intended to mislead the public — and the press.

So, Mr. Zitek, bust Katz’s butt, and Emerson’s, and your own agents’, if fibbing to the media is suddenly a crime.

JOHN SUGG is the former editor of and frequent contributor to the Weekly Planet, where this account originally appear. Last year he won a lawsuit that Steve Emerson filed against him and the Planet. After four years, Emerson was unable to produce proof of his allegations and dropped the suit. Sugg is now senior editor of Creative Loafing in Atlanta. He can be reached at at john.sugg@cln.com.