John F. Kennedy once said, “Mothers all want their sons to grow up to be president, but they don’t want them to become politicians in the process.” Unfortunately, politicians have generally acquired a reputation for being dishonest, deceitful, hypocritical, and power hungry. Perhaps most, but not all.
In 1998, I was one of the most outspoken opponents against the unconstitutional use of secret evidence in American immigration courts. With few exceptions, federal officials were using this practice exclusively against Arab and Muslim individuals, detaining them without allowing them to defend themselves in any meaningful way because the evidence presented to the judge was kept secret from the detainees and their attorneys. As we began a movement to repeal its use, we looked to political figures who would champion this important cause.
After searching far and wide for potential allies among the elected officials, two members of Congress came forward to support the latest struggle for civil rights, David Bonior of Michigan, a Democrat, and Tom Campbell of California, a Republican. They showed genuine concern and demonstrated great courage in the face of growing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments (apparent even then) fostered by many special interest and hate groups.
In June 1999, Bonior and Campbell introduced a bill in Congress to repeal the use of secret evidence and ban its practice. During my frequent interactions with them, I found them to be politicians willing to take a principled stand by defending a vulnerable community even at the risk of jeopardizing their political careers. This courageous position was validated when the bill passed the House Judiciary Committee in September 2000.
During the same period, I also approached then-Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is currently running in the Republican presidential primaries. When I first met him in August 1999, I handed him a letter introducing myself as a professor at a university in the state he governed. I briefly explained the problem of secret evidence, and stated an interest in supporting the presidential campaign of his brother, George W. Bush, in an effort to end its use. Within days I received correspondence from him directing me to the appropriate campaign operatives, and shortly after started receiving campaign materials and schedules.
Within the next few months, we met perhaps four or five times, once at an educational forum, but mostly at campaign events for his brother. As a result of this communication with Jeb, I met George W. Bush in March 2000 at a campaign event in Plant City, Florida. As I briefly explained to George the awful use of secret evidence, Jeb arrived and hugged his brother, who in turn told him to “meet this nice family,” and as he was apt to do, nicknamed my son, “Big Dude.”
Jeb immediately responded, “Oh, I know Sami.”
The reason I recall this incident is because years later after my arrest in 2003, Gov. Bush was asked by Palm Beach Post reporter Paul Lomartire about our relationship and he denied we had ever met. Although this untruthful response was remarkable, it was not surprising considering he was trying to conceal his central role in orchestrating not only my dismissal from the university but also my highly politicized indictment.
For many years before 9/11, pro-Israel groups and their supporters were trying to smear my name and dismiss me as a professor at the University of South Florida where I had been teaching since 1986. But they failed because I was a tenured professor. However, in the midst of the fear and hysteria that engulfed the country after 9/11, they found an opening. The newly appointed president of USF, herself known for pro-Israel leanings, buckled under pressure and began the process of firing me (without any due process) in December 2001.
Soon after, the attempt to dismiss me became a national issue prompting overwhelming faculty support and backing from faculty unions as well as condemnation from many local and national media outlets including the New York Times. By the spring of 2002, the American Association of University Professors, the premiere institution in charge of safeguarding academic freedom and the tenure system, conducted an investigation and subsequently issued a report that condemned the university’s action.
During that period AAUP warned the USF president and gave her until the fall of that year to reinstate my employment or face censure, which would have effectively blacklisted the university for its disregard of academic freedom. Such drastic action would have resulted in devastating consequences to the university’s reputation. Prior to this warning, the USF president contacted, in February 2002, the local U.S. Attorney who made the unusual public announcement that a grand jury investigation had been initiated. USF’s attorney stated then that, “an indictment would absolutely help the university’s case.”
The close relationship between the university and the FBI was revealed in a newspaper account of a completely separate case involving another USF professor. Dajin Peng was a Chinese-American professor, who was accused by USF of stealing funds and falsifying documents. According to Peng, the FBI approached him in 2009 and tried to recruit him to spy on the Chinese government, telling him that in exchange for his cooperation they could help him with his problems at the university because USF “was grateful for the bureau’s work on (Al-Arian’s) 2003 indictment.” My labor lawyer Robert McKee told the same paper that “USF had called off a deal to buy (me) out for almost $1 million” because they were expecting the indictment.
McKee was referring to an offer made by the university in August 2002, just a few days before the AAUP deadline. In exchange for the million dollars, the university asked for my resignation to avoid the AAUP censure. But the deal had to be approved by the university board, and its chairman, who had been publicly attacking me for months, put a stop to it. The chairman, Dick Beard, was a Republican businessman directly appointed by Gov. Bush. He immediately contacted the governor to bail out the university but Bush requested time to handle the matter.
Instead of sending me a written proposal as promised, USF filed a lawsuit to get me fired, first in state court, then in federal court. Evidently these were delay tactics to buy time, as Bush had requested. By the time both cases were dismissed four months later, the federal government was ready to proceed with its bloated political charges.
According to an insider within his administration in Tallahassee, Gov. Bush reached out during that week in August to the White House and the Department of Justice to accelerate the investigation and issue an indictment. The grand jury, which had been inactive for months, had considerably accelerated its secret meetings between September 2002 and February 2003 as revealed by its transcripts that were reviewed during my trial. The resulting indictment was clearly rushed, considering it was riddled with many basic factual errors. The government had to revise it 17 months later in a superseding indictment at the prompting of the judge.
The fact that it was a blatantly political case was also on display when the government admitted that it was not ready to try the case after I refused to waive my right to a speedy trial during my arraignment in April 2003. In a state of panic, the prosecutors pleaded for an 18-month delay to prepare for the case, which the judge quickly granted. In fact, as shown in this senatorial debate, my case was so political it was ridiculously manipulated by both candidates in the 2004 Florida senate race. In a state of 17 million people, over a quarter of the debate time was spent on a case that was still awaiting trial, where the defendant is supposedly innocent until proven guilty.
As Bismarck once noted “politics is the art of the possible,” in which the tools of democracy, such as bargaining, negotiating and compromise are used to effectively develop societies and run modern states. Politicians are elected and entrusted by the public in order to serve the common interests and protect the rights of the people and the values cherished by society such as justice, freedom and equality. But when politicians manipulate their position to tip the scale and abuse the system, people become cynical and distrustful. In a recent survey only 19% of Americans said that they trust their government, which is among the lowest levels in half a century.
Indeed, a direct consequence of the dark side of politics that seeks power by any means is the destruction of democracy itself, as citizens shun and discredit established politicians in favor of novices and demagogues as demonstrated by the likely Republican primary voters in this election season. Exercising real power could be a noble thing when its practitioner values truth, honesty and humility over vanity. In the words of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, “Power is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities, and where deeds are not used to violate and destroy but to establish relations and create new realities.”
This article originally appeared on Alternet.