JUST HOURS AFTER President Bush shut down the Texas-based Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development because of its support of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, his energy secretary, Spencer Abraham, co-hosted a fly-by photo-op with the group's lawyer, George Salem.
That encounter was one in a series of high-level connections that Salem has had with administration officials since September 11, weaving his dual missions of helping the administration with outreach to the Muslim community and defending his client from the president's war on terrorism.
President Bush was clear about his intentions when he announced yesterday morning that the U.S. government would go after organizations that fund Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings in Israel last weekend.
"The message is this: Those who do business with terror will do no business with the United States, or anywhere else the United States can reach," he said.
But by that standard, the White House will no longer be doing business with Salem if he continues in his role as lawyer for the Holy Land Foundation. In addition to his appearance at yesterday's photo-op, Salem chaired the Arab-American component of the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, and has helped orchestrate the White House public relations response to the September 11 attacks.
Bush singled out the Holy Land Foundation in his White House announcement. "The money raised by the Holy Land Foundation is used by Hamas to support schools and indoctrinate children to grow up into suicide bombers," he said. "The money raised by the Holy Land Foundation is also used by Hamas to recruit suicide bombers and support their families."
The FBI, which has been tracking the foundation since 1993 went further. The group's chief executive, Shukri Abu Baker, "has been repeatedly identified as a member of Hamas."
Holy Land's chairman blamed Israel. "The attorney general's office has been looking into Holy Land since probably 1992," said Ghassan Elashi. "All of these allegations are false. They are absolutely coming from Israel."
And an ad-hoc coalition of Muslim American groups plans to ask President Bush at a noon news conference to reconsider his moves against the Holy Land Foundation.
"We ask that President Bush reconsider what we believe is an unjust and counterproductive move that can only damage America's credibility with Muslims in this country and around the world and could create the impression that there has been a shift from a war on terrorism to an attack on Islam," reads a statement on the foundation's website. (Emphasis in the original.)
The charges against the Texas-based foundation go back almost to 1989, when the organization was established. But Stanley and Joyce Boim made them formally in court when they sued the foundation and several other Islamic groups in May of 2000.
"These groups have been funneling money and providing other material support for Hamas for years," says Alyza Lewin, an attorney for the family.
The Boims' son, David, was shot and killed in 1996 by Hamas terrorists on the same West Bank street as last weekend's attacks. One of the terrorists confessed and the other died in a suicide bombing the following year. The Boims sued the Holy Land Foundation and several other pro-Palestine organizations under the 1992 Anti-terrorism act, alleging that the groups funded Hamas and were therefore liable for damages. The Holy Land Foundation came to Salem's firm for help.
After a district court would not dismiss the Boims' claim last January, the defendants appealed. On September 24 of this year, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals asked the government for some direction, requesting an amicus brief. According to Legal Times, Douglas Letter, a Justice attorney who has been working for the administration on issues of terrorist funding, said at the time that the issue was "a difficult one," but agreed to look at the case.
When the Justice Department got involved, Salem took over the defense of the Holy Land Foundation. (Another lawyer from Salem's firm, Mark McDougall, had handled the preliminary work.)
Salem is a longtime GOP activist. His bio--posted on the website of his law firm, DC power firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld--notes that he served in "key roles in the Reagan-Bush '84, Bush-Quayle 88 and Bush-Cheney 2000 campaigns." He has given generously to Republican causes; some estimates say his contributions total nearly $50,000.
In press accounts following the September 11 attacks, Salem has boasted of his work in encouraging the administration to reach out to Muslims. According to a report in the American Lawyer, Salem "made some of the first and most powerful approaches to the White House on Sept. 11." Salem told American Lawyer's Tony Mauro that he immediately sent emails to two "senior officials" at the White House.
Salem's message on the attacks--that President Bush should say something quickly to quell anti-Arab American sentiment--was a good one, and the White House was responsive. "I am someone they know," Salem said. "But they did not need a great deal of prodding."
The next day, Salem sat down with Ralph Boyd Jr., assistant attorney general for civil rights, to help with efforts to document and investigate hate crimes directed at Arab Americans.
A little more than a month later, Salem was meeting with other Justice Department officials, not to discuss hate crimes, but to lobby on behalf of the Holy Land Foundation. Salem, according to an account in Legal Times, shrugs off claims that foundation funds terrorists and suggests that the lawsuit is without merit. "This litigation is precisely equivalent to what would happen if Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian child in the street, and the family went ahead and sued the United Jewish Appeal," he said.
The Justice Department disagreed. Despite Salem's efforts, the Justice Department in mid-November came down in favor of the interpretation of the law presented by Boim family attorneys. "Neither the First Amendment nor any other part of the Constitution guarantees a right to fund a foreign terrorist organization," the Justice Department argued in an amicus brief. The Justice Department, like a federal district court judge had done previously, also rejected the argument that the groups could not be held liable unless they were directly involved.
White House spokesperson Claire Buchan says Salem is "one of many people we've reached out to to provide advice on outreach to the Muslim-American community. He has not ever provided any advice to the White House on the Holy Land Foundation."
But Salem did meet yesterday with "law enforcement officials" at the Treasury Department. Asked about the nature of the meeting, Buchan says it was "to open a dialogue, as we have indicated a willingness to do with any organization listed."
"Many people who contribute to the charity do so because they think it's a charity and without knowing that they fund terrorism," says Buchan. "They're unwittingly contributing to these groups, and that's exactly why we're naming them."
Salem, who just arrived in Dallas, says that his firm met with the Dallas U.S. Attorneys Office and FBI counterterrorism specialists to do "due diligence" on the Holy Land Foundation before agreeing to work for them.
"The counterterrorism people within the FBI told us they had absolutely nothing on this group," says Salem. "We currently represent them in connection with a smaller lawsuit on a very narrow legal issue. Whether we're going to continue to represent them is an ongoing question."
Stephen F. Hayes is staff writer at The Weekly Standard.