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The Times and Sami Al-Arian

Nicholas Kristof's defense of the University of South Florida professor is flawed. Deeply flawed.

11:00 PM, Mar 14, 2002 • By DAVID TELL
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JUST FOR FUN, fellow students of journalism, let's count up all the mistakes New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas D. Kristof has recently made about Sami Al-Arian, that University of South Florida computer engineering professor The Weekly Standard has been following on and off these past few months. First, though, let's warm up on those few facts Kristof has somehow managed not to bungle.

Back in September, Sami Al-Arian had a career-threatening accident on the Fox News Channel's "O'Reilly Factor." Interviewed by Bill O'Reilly before a national television audience still raw from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, the previously obscure Al-Arian spent several uncomfortable minutes attempting to deodorize some of his past public remarks: "Death to Israel," "Jihad is our path," that sort of thing. An uproar immediately ensued at the University of South Florida. Alumni called to cancel their bequests, incredulous that the school had granted tenure to such a man. Several other people phoned in death threats against the professor. And a few months of such controversy later, citing an ongoing disruption of its core activities, the university informed Al-Arian that it intended to fire him. Which decision prompted a second uproar, this time involving would-be defenders of academic freedom, all of whom complain that the professor is being punished merely for holding unpopular views.

That's how Nicholas D. Kristof sees it, too. "The point," he writes in his March 1 column, "is not whether one agrees with Professor Al-Arian," whom Kristof describes as a "rumpled academic with a salt-and-pepper beard" who, though not too keen on Israel, nevertheless "denounces terrorism" and "promotes inter-faith services with Jews and Christians." The point, instead, "is that a university, even a country, becomes sterile when people are too intimidated to say things out of the mainstream." And only what Al-Arian has said is at issue, Kristof reports: "Three exhaustive studies of his conduct have found no evidence of wrongdoing. Most recently, an immigration judge, Kevin McHugh, issued a 56-page report in October 2000 concluding that 'there is no evidence before the court that demonstrates that' two Muslim organizations run by Mr. Al-Arian were fronts for Palestinian terrorists."

Okay, now let's start counting Kristof's errors, from least to most egregious.

1) Immigration Judge R. Kevin McHugh did not issue a "56-page report" or any other kind of "exhaustive study" about Sami Al-Arian in October 2000. McHugh did issue a 56-page decision in connection with a bond redetermination hearing for Sami Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, who had been arrested and detained on suspicion of terrorist connections. Calling McHugh's ruling a "report" on Al-Arian is rather like calling the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade a "report" on the abortion experiences of Jane Roe's sister-in-law--assuming she had one. Indeed, so weird is Kristof's choice of words here as to suggest that he hasn't actually read the very document he is quoting. Which suspicion might tend to be confirmed by the fact that Kristof has thoroughly mischaracterized the substance and significance of Judge McHugh's findings in the Al-Najjar case. But we'll come back to that in a moment; the truth is too deliciously embarrassing to be revealed just yet.

2) What about the other two "exhaustive studies" that Kristof claims have exonerated Al-Arian of more-than-rhetorical "wrongdoing" related to terrorism? Nowhere in his Times piece are these "studies" specifically identified or even generally described. But Kristof has since had an opportunity to elaborate the point a bit--as a guest on the March 4 edition of Fox's "O'Reilly Factor." If the "two Muslim organizations run by Mr. Al-Arian" were so innocuous, Bill O'Reilly asked Kristof, what about this letter in Al-Arian's handwriting? The one seized by the FBI in November 1995 after a senior officer of both organizations was identified as the worldwide leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad? The letter in which our mild-mannered professor with the salt-and-pepper beard celebrated a deadly suicide bombing at an Israeli bus stop and asked for financial support of "the jihad effort in Palestine so that operations such as these can continue"? Kristof replied that this "wasn't actually a fundraising letter, it was a private communication that he sent." And in support of this laughable explanation, Kristof cited a "report by a former president of the University of South Florida" which "came to the conclusion that there was no wrongdoing, that this was a private communication."

The reference here appears to be to a May 26, 1996 report by William Reece Smith Jr., commissioned by then-USF president Better Castor, who'd wanted to know whether the university had handled its relationship with Al-Arian's "Muslim organizations" appropriately. Nowhere in this 99-page document did Reece announce that Al-Arian himself was innocent of wrongdoing. Quite the opposite: Reece freely admitted that he was unable to reach such a conclusion, the FBI having seized all relevant documents and Al-Arian having refused to talk to him. Moreover, and more importantly for our present purposes, nowhere in his report did Reece discuss--or even mention--Al-Arian's February 1, 1995 fundraising letter to Isma'il al-Shatti. Could it be, maybe just maybe, that Nicholas D. Kristof hasn't actually read this "exhaustive study," either?

3) Once again, though, Kristof told Bill O'Reilly, not one, not two, but "three major investigations" ending in "three different studies" have exonerated Sami Al- Arian of terrorist associations. And "if you look at the FBI study" in particular, you'll see that "they found no evidence" that Al-Arian has ever raised money for bad guys.

Only there is no such "FBI study"; Kristof has invented it. The Bureau's 1995 - 96 investigation of Al-Arian did not result in an indictment. But neither did it result in any kind of statement clearing him. In fact, it has been the FBI's public position since 1997--stated repeatedly before a series of federal trial, appeals, and immigration courts, and never retracted--that Al-Arian's now-defunct "Muslim organizations" were "fronts" for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Come to think of it, just this year, on February 21, one week before Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column appeared, the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office for central Florida publicly confirmed that "federal law enforcement does have an active and ongoing investigation into the conduct and activities" of Sami Al-Arian.

4) Now then, back to Judge McHugh's "56-page report." Kristof would have it that McHugh believes "there is no evidence" to sustain suspicions about the good professor. History indicates otherwise. In 1997, when Al-Arian's brother-in-law was first arrested, it fell to Judge McHugh to decide whether the man should be released on bond pending deportation proceedings. So McHugh listened to some testimony; Al- Arian took the Fifth Amendment nearly 100 times rather than answer questions about whether he'd raised money for terrorists. McHugh also looked at a bunch of classified FBI evidence during an in camera session. And in June 1997 he decided that Mazen Al- Najjar--by virtue of his involvement with Al-Arian's two "Muslim" groups--was "associated with a terrorist organization," and was a "threat to national security." A few months later, a second immigration court, having reviewed the same testimony and evidence, affirmed McHugh's ruling without dissent.

In May 2000, however, federal district judge Joan Lenard ordered McHugh to start the process over and reach a new decision based only on evidence the government was prepared to reveal in an open, public hearing. Which is why McHugh was then forced to issue the October 2000 ruling Kristof now quotes--that there was no longer any "evidence before the Court" to tie Sami Al-Arian's Tampa, Florida outfits with Middle Eastern terrorism. In context, this would hardly seem a ringing endorsement.

5) Especially since, in further context, and as a formal legal matter, Judge McHugh's "56-page report" doesn't really exist, either. Four months ago, on November 28, 2001, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated both Judge Lenard's May 2000 order and the "56-page report" that it inspired. Kevin McHugh's earlier judgment stands: that there is "pertinent and reliable" evidence suggesting terrorist connections at Sami Al-Arian's "Muslim organizations." And there are not three, not two, not one, but zero "exhaustive studies" to the contrary. Oops.

Nicholas Kristof's March 1 Times column is datelined "Tampa, Florida" and opens with a description of Al-Arian's "carved-wood Egyptian couch." Maybe if Kristof had talked to somebody else--anybody else--and had bothered to do a smidgen of research on his own, he wouldn't have gotten the story so hopelessly bollixed up.

David Tell is opinion editor at The Weekly Standard.