Sami Al-Arian Speaks
Apology from John Sugg: This column originally contained a quote attributed widely to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Based upon several sources, including academic, I used that quote. It was not accurate, I have concluded after reviewing the original source material, a biography by Michael Bar Zohar. There are many quotes reflecting anger and hatred on both sides of the Middle East dispute, including several by Ben-Gurion — who it should be noted, initially had a vision of Arab-Jewish unity. But the one I used was not accurate. I am especially apologetic because my error was pointed out by a parent of a child killed in the Middle East by terrorists.
The Hillsborough County jail on Orient Road, a monument of austere institutional concrete, is the home of sorrows. I was there last week to see Sami Al-Arian, arguably the most famous man in Tampa nowadays and one who should be among the most sorrowful, facing what could be life imprisonment for daring to be an advocate for his people.
As I waited in the lobby, watching the often tearful parents and wives and children of prisoners, I was thinking of an article I’d just read – trying to get my mind off of the Al-Arian case, a subject I’ve written about, and been sued over (winning the case), for a decade. The article was about famed scientist Carl Sagan, and he was quoted saying: "If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe."
That’s a good metaphor, I thought, for the Al-Arian case. At what point do we have the beginning, the creation of the peculiar legal universe in which Al-Arian is now an unhappy denizen? The answer is the difference between Al-Arian being a passionate advocate or being a terrorist.
Was it when the government began wiretapping the academic in the early 1990s? When pseudo-journalist Steve Emerson captured Al-Arian on tape in the 1994 agit-prop film Jihad in America? Perhaps it was on April 21, 1995, when Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter first began targeting the Palestinian professor – by trying to hang the Oklahoma City bombing on Muslims, specifically Al-Arian?
My exclusive interview with Al-Arian – the first media op he has agreed to since the trial began – produced several nuggets of information, including what can only be called reckless endangerment of Al-Arian’s life by federal marshals.
Throughout the interview, Al-Arian – dressed in blue jail garb, thinner and paler than when I last saw him four years ago – remained upbeat and animated. "I’m optimistic," he predicted about the trial’s outcome.
Al-Arian also raised issues of why the government is prosecuting him now. Officials have claimed that it wasn’t until intelligence agencies were able to share material – resulting from the so-called PATRIOT Act – that wiretaps were made available to the prosecution.
"The case would not have been brought except for three things," Al-Arian said. "First there was 9/11 and then [Attorney General John] Ashcroft.
"Despite what the government says, we know they were sharing the information," Al-Arian said. "We found an original indictment, from August of 2000 [when Al-Arian's brother in law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was fighting deportation at a hearing that amounted to a prequel of the current trial]. It had almost all of the same overt acts as the current indictment, and that came from wiretaps. It wasn’t the PATRIOT Act.
"But [then-Attorney General] Janet Reno wouldn’t go for it," Al-Arian said.
The third factor was lead FBI agent Kerry Myers. "He’s a zealot," Al-Arian said. "When he arrested me, he came up behind me and whispered in my ear, ‘You’re charged with terrrrr-orrrrrr-issssmmmmm.’"
Al-Arian’s thoughts on the cause of his prosecution – or persecution – were tops on my agenda. And, had he lied to me and others about his involvement with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad?
"I didn’t tell you and others everything," he said. "I said I was part of a movement. Some parts of the movement went one way, some another. That was true. But I didn’t tell you other things, but I promise you someday I will."
[My notes from several interviews show that when I asked Al-Arian if he was a member of the PIJ, he responded, "No." However, he always expanded that answer by saying he was part of a broad intellectual movement, in which some of the people became violent and others didn't.]
During closing arguments, federal prosecutor Terry Zitek proclaimed his version of the big bang that began the crusade against Al-Arian.
The PIJ, Zitek told jurors, "wanted Israelis to give up their land from the river to the sea." And if the Israelis balked, Zitek contended, the PIJ "would kill them."
The government whistled Dixie and neglected to show the involvement of Al-Arian or his co-defendants, Ghassan Ballut, Hatim Fariz and Sameeh Hammoudeh, in violence – and, in fact, conceded that the men weren’t engaged in actual acts of terrorism.
The federales have had help with their strategy. U.S. District Judge James Moody has allowed only testimony backing Zitek’s view of what precipitated the trial, the spin from one side in the tragic events in the Middle East. Even a United Nations resolution mentioned in the government’s own exhibits was not allowed to be explained in the closing arguments – because the document might provoke sympathy for Palestinians.
As I sat down on an uncomfortable plastic chair, facing Al-Arian through what looked like four inches of glass, I’d brought a piece of information. I was curious whether Al-Arian thought the jurors in his case had been privileged to see the same data: The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reports that more than 3,300 Palestinians, almost 700 of them children, have been slain by Israelis in the last five years. Fewer than 1,000 Israelis, including about 120 kids, have been killed by Palestinians.
Al-Arian: "That’s the context. That’s what Americans never hear. Who is getting killed, who is killing. That’s what people [in America] never hear. All they hear is that Palestinians bomb civilians, but almost never that Israelis kill our children. You tell me, why will no one in America ever talk about the terrorism we have lived with" since 1948?
More context the jurors never heard: Israel has been caught repeatedly spying on the United States. In 1967, Israel intentionally attacked the USS Liberty, killing 34 American servicemen (and claims by Israel that it was a mistake were labeled as "ridiculous" by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer). In 1954, Israel set up a spy ring to attack American and British targets – and blame the terrorism on Arabs; old history, maybe, but Israel recently honored the terrorists involved in what is called the "Lavon Affair."
By comparison, Palestinians have never targeted America – although Moody let the jurors hear unproven and highly prejudicial innuendo from FBI agent Kerry Myers that such an attack was planned. Here are excerpts from the interview with Al-Arian. Some parts have been withheld at his and his attorneys’ request pending the jury verdict. My questions aren’t verbatim, but include context from the conversation.
Q: How do you feel?
A: Well, yesterday, when they [marshals] were bringing me back [to the jail] they hit a car. They were speeding, going fast and had to stop. I didn’t have a seatbelt on. They only cared about handcuffing me, not about safety. [Al-Arian's wife, Nahla, was at the interview, and added that he had been thrown around in the car, hitting his head.]
Q: What do you think about the progress of the trial, the likely verdict?
A: From day one, this has been a political case. There’s no way the so-called evidence proves what the government claims.
Q: The jury?
A: It depends on [juror] 325. [Other jurors have reported that one of their colleagues, No. 325, has tried to prejudice them against Al-Arian. Judge Moody, for inexplicable reasons, has allowed this tainting influence to remain on the jury.]
Q: If you’re acquitted?
A: My family. What is really hard is the suffering of my family. That is my first priority. Then [Al-Arian gave a big smile and put both palms on the glass barrier] I want to get a law degree.
Q: Do you think the Tribune’s Michael Fechter has been vindicated?
A: No. The mistakes he made then are still mistakes. He wasn’t working alone. He was on a first-name basis [with the federal agents]. Who gave him the Al-Shatti letter? [Fechter obtained a letter from agents - a letter Al-Arian claimed was never sent, and which prosecutors couldn't prove otherwise - that solicited funds from a Kuwaiti official. More on the Tribune's faulty reporting can be found here
Q: Did you want to testify?
A: Yes. I have an answer to every single thing, every single transaction. For every penny, I have an explanation.
Q: What do you think of the legal process?
A: The system is absolutely not fair. There were 400 [wiretapped] conversations I wanted the jury to hear. Where I say this is not a religious war. My own words about Jews. My involvement with American politicians. In one conversation, June 19, 2002, I condemned [a terrorist attack]. But I can’t bring that into court. Moody wouldn’t allow that. Only the government could introduce conversations. If we wanted to introduce tapes of my own words, Moody said I would have to testify, which is what the government wanted.
And, the judge introduced agent Myers as an expert witness. He testified for six weeks on everything as an expert. But when it came our turn to ask questions, Moody says he was a "summary" witness [just summarizing evidence], and we couldn’t go deep into his investigation. Again, how fair is that?
Q: Your attorneys have depicted you as splitting from the PIJ as it became violent in the mid-1990s. Is that accurate?
A: Yes, of course. April 28, 1994. There are no calls dealing with the PIJ after April 28. None.
Q: The government claims the conspiracy was going on until just a few years ago. Did you realize you were under surveillance?
A: I’ve listened to you on the tapes. When you would call me, you’d say, ‘Hello Sami, hello Barry.’" [Barry Carmody was the original FBI agent on the case.] Yes, I knew they were watching.