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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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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.