The Persecution of Sami Al-Arian

One of the first big show trials here in the post-9/11 homeland was of a Muslim professor from Florida, now 49, Sami al-Arian. Pro-Israel hawks had resented this computer professor at the University of South Florida long before Atta and the hijackers flew their planes into the Trade towers, because they saw al-Arian, a Palestinian born in Kuwait of parents kicked out of their Homeland in 1948, as an effective agitator here for the Palestinian cause. As John Sugg, a fine journalist, then based in Tampa, who’s followed al-Arian’s tribulations for years, wrote in the spring of 2006 on this website:

“When was al-Arian important? More than a decade ago, when Israel’s Likudniks in the United States, such as [Steven] Emerson, were working feverishly to undermine the Oslo peace process. No Arab voice could be tolerated, and al-Arian was vigorously trying to communicate with our government and its leaders. He was being successful, making speeches to intelligence and military commanders at MacDill AFB’s Central Command, inviting the FBI and other officials to attend meetings of his groups. People were beginning to listen and to wonder why only one side of the Middle East debate was heard here. That was the reason for Al-Arian’s political prosecution.”

Now the United States is a country that is blessed by a constitution, a Bill of Rights and the rule of law, all of them upheld with degrees of enthusiasm that rise and fall according to sex, income and ethnicity. The fall is particularly drastic if your name is Arab, you publicly profess the justice of the Palestinian cause. Living in Florida doesn’t help either.

At the direct instigation of Attorney General Ashcroft, the feds threw the book at al-Arian in February 2003. He was arrested with much fanfare and charged in a bloated terrorism and conspiracy case. He spent two and a half years in prison, in solitary confinement under atrocious conditions. To confer with his lawyers, he had to hobble half a mile, shackled hand and foot, his law files balanced on his back.

The six-month trial in US District Court in Tampa featured 80 government witnesses (including 21 from Israel) and 400 intercepted phone calls (the results of a decade of surveillance and half a million recorded calls). The government’s evidence against Al-Arian consisted of speeches he gave, magazines he edited, lectures he presented, articles he wrote, books he owned, conferences he organized, rallies he attended, news he heard and websites no one accessed. One bit of evidence consisted of a conversation a co-defendant had with al-Arian in his dream. The defense rested without calling a single witness or presenting any evidence since the government’s case rested entirely on First Amendment­protected activities.

The man presiding over al-Arian’s trial was US District Court Judge James Moody, a creature from the dark lagoon of Floridian jurisprudence. Hospitable to all testimony from Israelis, Moody ruled that al-Arian and his associates could not say a single word about the military occupation or the plight of the Palestinian people. During closing arguments, the prosecution noted a document that mentioned UN Resolution 242. Moody nixed that on the grounds that it showed Palestinians in altogether too warm a light and therefore might tax the objectivity of the jurors. As Sugg wrote after that ruling, if MLK had been on trial in Judge Moody’s courtroom for disturbing the peace, he wouldn’t have been allowed to mention Jim Crow or lynchings.

In December 2005, despite Moody’s diligence, the jury acquitted al-Arian of the most serious charges. On those remaining, the usual prosecutorial flailings under conspiracy statutes, jurors voted 10 to 2 for acquittal. Two co-defendants were acquitted completely. It was a terrible humiliation for the Justice Department, which had flung an estimated $50 million into the trial.

A jury split 10-2 in a defendant’s favor doesn’t augur well for conviction in a retrial. Indeed in the spring of 2006 the government declined to retry a wealthy Tampa businessman (the founder of Hooters) on tax evasion charges because the jury was hung 6 to 6, and therefore the proportion was too high to realistically expect a conviction during a retrial.

But the feds insisted they wanted to put al-Arian through the wringer again and — prudently, given Moody’s prejudice-al-Arian’s lawyers urged him to make a plea and put an end to his ordeal and end the suffering of his family.

The terms of the plea agreement were in line with Al-Arian’s long-standing contention, despite the government’s accusations, that he never contributed to the violent actions of any organization. The government settled for a watered-down version of a single count of providing services to people associated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Statement of Facts in the agreement included only these innocuous activities:

(1) hiring an attorney for his brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, during his deportation hearings in the late 1990s;

(2) filling out immigration forms for a resident Palestinian scholar from Britain; and

(3) not disclosing details of associations to a local reporter. (I remain completely baffled as to why it should be a crime to withhold information from a newspaper reporter.)

A central aspect of the plea agreement was an understanding that al-Arian would not be subject to further prosecution or called to cooperate with the government on any matter. The government recommended the shortest possible sentence.

On May 1, 2006, al-Arian came before Judge Moody for sentencing. Watching the proceedings Sugg, as he reported on the CounterPunch website, noted a smug air among the prosecutors. He also noted that Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez had arrived in the Tampa area five days earlier. Under the plea, al-Arian’s sentence amounted to little more than time served, followed by his departure from the United States. But Judge Moody sentenced al-Arian to the maximum, using inflamed language about al-Arian having blood on his hands, a charge one juror said the jury emphatically rejected.

Now al-Arian faced eleven months more in prison, with release and deportation scheduled for April 2007. But the feds’ appetite was far from slaked. In October, Gordon Kromberg, an assistant federal prosecutor in Virginia notorious as an Islamophobe, called al-Arian to testify before a grand jury investigating an Islamic think tank. The subpoena was a outright violation of al-Arian’s April plea agreement and his attorneys filed a motion to quash it. The motion included affidavits by attorneys who participated in the negotiations attesting to the fact that “the overarching purpose of the parties’ plea agreement was to conclude, once and for all, all business between the government and Dr. al-Arian.” The defense lawyers insisted that al-Arian would never have entered a plea that left him vulnerable to government fishing expeditions.

Al-Arian’s lawyers feared that their client was being set up for a perjury trap. Up in Virginia, Kromberg ranted to al-Arian’s attorney about “the Islamization of America,” while down in Tampa, Judge Moody ruled that federal marshals could drag al-Arian to Virginia to testify. On November 16, al-Arian was brought before the grand jury and placed in civil contempt for refusing to testify.

One month after al-Arian was placed in civil contempt, the grand jury term expired, so Kromberg promptly impaneled a new one. Al-Arian was again subpoenaed and again expressed his ethical stance against testifying. This judge also held him in contempt, which could prolong his imprisonment by up to 18 months.

Al-Arian, who is diabetic, then went on a hunger strike. February 26 marked the sixth week of his water-only hunger strike, in which he has lost 40 pounds and has grown considerably weaker. On the 23rd day of his hunger strike, Al-Arian collapsed and hit his head; he has since been moved to a federal prison medical facility in Butner, North Carolina.

On January 22, when Al-Arian appeared before Judge Lee on the charge of contempt, he had this to say about his recent treatment:

“In the past three weeks, I have been to four prisons. I spent fourteen days in the Atlanta penitentiary under 23-hour lockdown, in a roach and rat infested environment. On two occasions, rats shared my diabetic snack. When I was transported from Atlanta to Petersburg (Virginia) and from Petersburg to Alexandria, they allowed me only to wear a t-shirt in subfreezing weather during long walks. In the early morning, the Atlanta guard took my thermal undershirt which I purchased from the prison and threw it in the garbage and when I complained, he threatened to use a lockbox on my handcuffs which would make them extremely uncomfortable. In Petersburg, the guard asked me to take off my clean t-shirt and boxers and gave me dirty and worn out ones. When I complained, he told me to ‘shut the f up.’ And when I asked why he was treating me like that, he said ‘because you’re a terrorist.’ When I further complained to the lieutenant in charge, he shrugged it off and said if I don’t like it, I should write a grievance to the Bureau of Prisons. When I said he had the authority to give me clean clothes, he refused and said if I don’t like it I should write a grievance to the Bureau of Prisons. During one of the airlifts, an air marshal further tightened my already tightened handcuffs, and asked me ‘Why do you hate us?’ I told him, ‘I don’t hate you.’ He said, ‘I know who you are, I’ve read your s-h-i-t.’ These are examples of the government’s harassment campaign against me that’s been taking place for years because of my political beliefs.”

Measured against José Padilla, a man driven insane on Rumsfeld’s orders, I guess al-Arian is lucky. He’s alive, and still sane, though getting weaker by the day. He needs all the support we can muster. Across the globe, where al-Arian’s case has aroused much outrage, respect for the US commitment to Constitutional freedoms sinks lower still.

For information on the case, go to

Thar She Blows:
Hillary’s Temper Problem

The Clintons have always had short fuses. Bill was notorious for blowing up at his aides. Their private quarters in Little Rock and then at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue often rang with Hillary’s invective at her faithless mate. She once clouted him with a table lamp.

But Bill, one of the most relentless campaigners in living memory, knew that the deadliest place to fray or snap is on the campaign trail–particularly in primary season, when each candidate strains to persuade the voters that theirs will be the steadiest hand on the tiller. It takes only a single public flare-up for the press to start using phrases like ‘increasingly testy’ and for deadly words like ‘unstable’ to crop up in voter focus groups.

At the best of times, Hillary is taut by disposition, and already her political prospects for winning the Democratic nomination are getting somewhat cloudier. These recent weeks have been trying ones, crowned by the Oscar-night adulation for Al Gore, no favourite of the Clintons.

On the heels of his $1.3m fundraiser for Hillary’s rival, Illinois Senator Barrack Obama, Hollywood tycoon and Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen planted a carefully improvised explosive device under HRC’s candidacy.

He confided to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times that Mrs Clinton was not the candidate to unify the Democratic Party, nor the nation; also that he would never forgive her husband for ignoring his own appeals and those of many other liberals to give a White House pardon to Leonard Peltier, a native American convicted of killing two FBI agents back in the 1970s. But while leaving Peltier to rot in prison, Clinton did pardon financier Marc Rich.

Geffen’s aim was true. Even though they enjoy political candidates tearing each other to shreds, Americans prefer to have the carnage tricked out with worthy appeals for ‘unity’ and ‘bipartisanship’. The word ‘divisive’ is a deadly one to have hung around one’s neck. And for many, Rich’s pardon was the quintessential resume of Clintonian corruption. (Peter Finley Dunne, the great Chicago satirist at the start of the 20th century once had Mr Dooley say, “Whin you see two politicians, and one is saying ‘Miscre’ent’ and the other ‘Traitor’, ye can be sure it’s two Dimmycrats tryin’ to reunite the Party.”)

Hillary Clinton promptly over-reacted. Her campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, said there was no room in the campaign for “personal insults” and that since Obama had devoted many worthy words to the topic of civility in national discourse, he should hand Geffen back his donations. Obama declined to do this and his campaign director Robert Gibbs happily told the press, “It is ironic that the Clintons had no problem with David Geffen when he was raising them $18m and sleeping at their invitation in the Lincoln bedroom.”

This, and the Oscar triumph for Gore, have left Mrs Clinton distinctly frayed. Again, she is adamantly refusing to apologize for her 2003 vote in favour of the hugely unpopular war in Iraq. Obama wasn’t in the Senate in 2003 and was on record anyway as opposing the war. Another of Mrs Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, John Edwards, has said he regrets his vote. Seventy-four percent of Democrats say Iraq will be a factor in their 2008 vote, according to a February Gallup Poll; 50 per cent say it will be a major factor.

But Mrs Clinton is defiant. Asked about her vote for the war at a New Hampshire town hall, she said:

“If the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from.”

Since there are indeed others to choose from, this was not a smart thing to say, as her husband could have told her–though he probably kept his mouth shut.

The most ill-tempered politician in America is former prisoner-of-war and now US Senator John McCain, seeking the Republican nomination. Back in the 2000 primary season, Karl Rove lit the fuse and McCain exploded, right on schedule. With Barack Obama gaining and John Edwards still in contention, Hillary’s numbers are not as robust as they were. She had better learn how to smile under fire, or she’ll soon be in real trouble.

Of course, the Clintons not only have short fuses. They’re mean campaigners too. If Obama has skeletons in his cupboard you can be sure a Clinton-hired investigator is jimmying open the lock. Hardly had a Washington Post poll disclosed that Obama is taking the black vote away from Clinton before the Chicago Tribune ran a story that one of Obama’s ancestors may have owned slaves. Now where do you think the Trib got that one from?
The Passing of Camelot

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr , so the AP obituary of the historian put it, was “enough of a sport to swim fully clothed in the pool of then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy.” Actually they threw him in, and when JFK rang Ethel Kennedy the next morning to remonstrate, she snappily responded, “well Jack, I didn’t get on your case about the
Bay of Pigs, did I?”

Now the two quintessential Kennedy liberals have fallen by the wayside, first J.K.Galbraith last year at 97, now Schlesinger at 89. I always used to think of Flaubert when I saw them together at cocktail parties in Manhattan or at Democratic Party conventions: tall Galbraith and tiny Schlesinger, in the company of his very tall wife Alexandra.

Schlesinger had more venom in him than Galbraith, whose urbanity went deep, at least until he got onto the topic of Marx. Schlesinger was vicious against the left in the 1940s amid the rising tides of the cold war, when he was one of the founders of the ADA. That was the moment of his real, red-baiting utility to the powers-that-be, far more than his later role as the bard of Camelot.

He survived the cold-war liberalism of which he was the prime exponent, then the détente liberalism that died at the hand of Jimmy Carter, then even the viability of the word itself which both Galbraith and Schlesinger rose to defend amid the expiry of liberalism in the Dukakis campaign.

Schlesinger was always sensitive to unkind slurs on liberalism and once berated me for being nasty in a Harpers piece about Walter Lippmann, the silliest liberal of all. But Lippmann wasn’t a happy man, while both Galbraith and Schlesinger did seem agreeably contented with their lot in life as regards the necessities of food, drink, sex and money.

I think they both felt clear in their consciences about the services they had done the state. This perfectly understandable blindness about the practical consequences of the ideology that propelled them through successful careers vitiated much of their writing, but made them very pleasant company. Intellectually they didn’t come close to their opposite numbers in British social democracy, if you set Galbraith next to the Anglo-Hungarians, Kaldor or Balogh or Schlesinger alongside A.J.P. Taylor. But so? In Britain social democracy ended up with Blair and in America liberalism gave us Clinton.

Not everything is made in China, or Iran

A couple of weeks ago I ran a column here on the gullibility of Michael Gordon, military correspondent of the New York Times. He’d just swallowed — hook, line, sinker and about 300 feet of 30lb test monofilament — briefings (anonymous of course) from Pentagon flacks about deadly roadside bombs in Iraq being supplied by Iran, because their “sophisticated” features were obviously beyond the capabilities of Iraqi machine shops.

I quoted weapons designer Pierre Sprey at some length on the design features of the EFPs, and his conclusion that:

“The improvised EFPs used in Iraq don’t need to have Iranian-manufactured components. The necessary equipment consists of a copper bowl (a hand beaten one like they sell to tourists all over the Middle East is fine), a 6″ to 9″ diameter iron or steel sewer pipe or oil pipe (the oil pipe is excellent quality steel), a few pounds of explosive and a fuse. The 380 tons of US RDX explosive that went missing due to lax security would be ultra-high quality stuff for the job. All the insurgents need is one or two chalk talks or a video tape to learn how to make an EFP. That’s all it takes to transfer the technology.”

A few days later Pierre received 100 per cent ratification by a story in the Wall Street Journal for February 27, 2007

U.S. Find Stokes Fears of Iraqis’ Bomb-Making Ability

by Yochi J. Dreazen.

Baghdad, Iraq — An American military raid in southern Iraq uncovered a makeshift factory used to construct advanced roadside bombs that the U.S. had thought were made only in Iran. The find raises fears that Shiite Muslim insurgents across Iraq may be able to manufacture large quantities of such weapons on their own.

The Saturday raid in the small town of Jedidah marked the first time U.S. forces found evidence that militants inside Iraq are assembling “explosively formed penetrators,” or EFPs, which can punch through the armored shells of U.S. military vehicles. U.S. officials said they found components for building about 150 of the devices, one of the largest caches of such weapons found to date in Iraq.

This find — separate from one made in the southern city of Hilla a week ago — is forcing U.S. officials to reassess their belief that such bombs were being built in Iran and smuggled fully assembled into Iraq. U.S. commanders briefing reporters here said Iraqi militants appear able to construct the bombs out of materials purchased locally or shipped into the country from Iran.

“We originally thought these came into Iraq already created, and now that intelligence has been totally relooked,” said Capt. Clayton Combs, who led the raid. “It’s like a playground kit you get in the mail: You can plot the instructions and start putting it together on- site, and that’s what we have here.”

Footnote: a shorter version of the first item first ran in the print edition of The Nation that went to press last Wednesday.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN is the author (with Jeffrey St. Clair) of End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.