Terror Watch: Friends in High Places

The lawyer for a Florida-based professor accused of leading a violent Palestinian terror group will seek to embarrass the U.S. government next month by introducing evidence that his client attended numerous meetings at the White House and met with high-level figures in both political parties, including Hillary Clinton and White House political director Karl Rove, according to recent court records.

Former computer science professor Sami Al-Arian--a longstanding prime spokesman for Arab-American political causes--goes on trial next month on charges that he served as a secret leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The PIJ is a State Department-designated terrorist organization that U.S. officials charge is responsible for a rash of suicide bombings and other attacks that led to the deaths of Israeli and American civilians.

The Justice Department considers Al-Arian's case one of the most important terror cases it has brought under the USA Patriot Act--the post-9/11 law that explicitly authorized the use of secret national-security wiretaps in criminal cases. But at his trial, slated to begin in Tampa, Fla., in early June, Al-Arian's lawyer is seeking to turn the tables by hammering home his client's surprising access to the highest levels of the U.S. government--even at a time that he was a principal target of a highly sensitive FBI counterterrorism probe.

Just how much access Al-Arian had is detailed in a letter written to federal prosecutors by his lawyer, William Moffit, that was recently entered into the court record. Moffit states that Al-Arian attended meetings at the White House with both Clinton and Bush every year between 1998 and 2001. In addition, the letter states, Al-Arian also attended a briefing at the Justice Department in July 2001, met with Al Gore in November 1998 and Hillary Clinton in October 1999. It also states that President Bush sent a written apology to Al-Arian's wife in 2001 when the couple son's was denied access to the White House--reportedly because of his connection to his father.

"Each of these events occurred at a time that the government is alleging that Dr. Al-Arian was somehow a dangerous terrorist involved in a conspiracy to kill Americans," Moffit wrote in his letter.

"Dr. Al-Arian's access to these political figures coupled with the fact there was public-source information regarding many of the contentions that form the basis of the government's indictment seem to belie the notion that Dr. Al-Arian was in anyway considered by anyone in the intelligence or law enforcement communities to be any kind of threat to the United States or a threat to harm any officials of the United States."

Al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor, is charged with conspiring to commit murder, conspiracy to provide material support to a terrorist group, extortion, visa fraud, perjury and other crimes--all in connection with his alleged service as a member of the "Shura Council," the top governing body of Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

According to the indictment, which relies heavily on secret wiretaps, Al-Arian regularly communicated with top PIJ officials in the Mideast, helping to manage their finances, dispatching funds to the group and relaying messages among its top leaders. In some of the intercepted conversations, Al-Arian allegedly praised suicide bombings, kidnappings and drive-by shootings by PIJ. "I call upon you to try to extend true support to the jihad effort in Palestine so that operations such as these can continue," he wrote in one fund-raising appeal after a suicide bombing that killed 22 Israelis in 1995.

Moffit told NEWSWEEK that he would not unveil his defense to the charges until opening statements begin in the trial. But in court papers, he has indicated that he intends to portray Al-Arian as a freedom fighter and will attempt to put U.S. policy in the Middle East on trial. He has asked the judge overseeing the case to allow him to portray members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) as "lawful combatants" who had a legitimate "right to resist" Israeli policies on Palestinian land--a request that is being strongly resisted by prosecutors.

Moffit also appears to want to show that U.S. government and political figures, while hardly sympathetic to those views, were at least willing to tolerate them in their efforts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, both internationally and in the United States. Many of Al-Arian's views about oppression of the Palestinians, Moffit points out, were expressed openly. To further press the point about Al-Arian's high-level access, Moffit asked prosecutors to turn over any U.S. intelligence or law-enforcement reports relating to Al-Arian's meetings as well as photographs of him with top government officials--including White House political director Karl Rove. Moffit also asked prosecutors to turn over any secret government recording that might have been made of Al-Arian talking to a range of top current and former government officials, members of Congress and political activists. Among them: Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, former speaker Newt Gingrich, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson and Republican political activist Grover Norquist.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Tampa, which is prosecuting the Al-Arian case, had no comment on Moffit's letter. But some--though not all--of the meetings referred to in the letter have been publicly referred to in the past. For example, as NEWSWEEK reported at the time of his indictment two years ago, Al-Arian did in fact have his photograph taken with President Bush when he was campaigning in Florida in March 2000 and later was among 150 Muslim-American activists invited to the White House to attend an "outreach" briefing that was given by Rove.

But what these meetings mean, and their ultimate significance for Al-Arian's trial, is far from clear. Neither Moffit nor prosecutors suggest that political figures did anything wrong by meeting with Al-Arian. For many Justice Department officials, the sessions are a prime example of the dysfunctional "wall" that plagued U.S. counterterrorism efforts prior to the September 11 terror attacks--and was ultimately eliminated with the Patriot Act.

Although Al-Arian was a key target of a secret Foreign Intellignence Surveillance Act wiretaps for years, Justice Department officials interpreted U.S. law to prohibit "sharing" of such intelligence with criminal investigators--much less political figures in the White House and Capitol Hill. "The government was just not set up to share information," says one Justice official.

But Al-Arian's access to Washington figures also illustrates the ardor with which both political parties ardently courted Muslim and Arab-American votes throughout the 1990s--even to the point of embracing activists who had already been identified by law enforcement as problematic figures. For example, another figure who was associated with Al-Arian--Abdurahman Alamoudi, the former executive director of the American Muslim Council--had openly proclaimed his support for groups such as Hamas and Hizbullah at a pro-Palestinian rally in Lafayette Park outside the White House in October 2000. The State Department considers both to be terrorist organizations. ("We are all supporters of Hamas. Allahu akbar!" Alamoudi was quoted as saying.) Yet Alamoudi, who last year pled guilty to taking undisclosed money from the Libyan government, was warmly welcomed by many U.S. political and government figures for years--and at one point even served as a State Department "goodwill" ambassador to the Muslim world. "There was this whole kumbaya culture," said Steve Emerson, a veteran researcher who campaigned for years to expose the alleged terror connections of figures like Al-Arian and Alamoudi.

Al-Arian's case underscores the point because he became, in the view of some observers, a key figure in George W. Bush's 2000 campaign efforts to court Muslim and Arab-American voters--in part by pledging to change U.S. counterterrorism policies. Al-Arian in particular was pushing for an end to the Justice Department's use of "secret evidence" to deport suspected terrorists--a cause that was symbolized by the case of his brother-in-law, Mazzan Al-Najjar, who was expelled to Lebanon because of his alleged connections to PIJ. After being briefed about the Al-Najjar case, Bush even raised the "secret evidence" issue during a debate with Al Gore in 2000--a move that energized many Muslim activists, including Al-Arian, who bragged about how he then helped register Muslims in Florida for the Republican Party. "I think I personally played a big role in electing Bush," Al-Arian boasted at a Muslim-American dinner in 2002.

Sources tell NEWSWEEK that, at first, the White House and Justice Department worked actively to fulfill Bush's campaign pledge to restrict the use of "secret evidence." The Justice Department prepared a proposal to do so and, after much internal debate, it was supposed to be personally presented by Bush to a group of Muslim activists at a White House meeting scheduled to take place at 2 p.m. on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, according to a source who was slated to attend the meeting.

Because of the events of that morning, the meeting was cancelled, and the proposal never saw the light of day.