Salon: The prime-time smearing of Sami Al-Arian

On April 21, 1995, Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter wrote a news story about the bombing at the Oklahoma City federal building, which had been destroyed two days earlier by domestic right-wing terrorists. Law enforcement officials had yet to make an arrest, but Fechter had his own ideas. "More and more," he wrote, "terrorism experts in the United States and elsewhere say Wednesday's bombing in Oklahoma City bears the characteristics of other deadly attacks linked to Islamic militants."

Fechter seemed to be an odd choice to write the piece, since at the time the county news reporter had virtually no experience covering religion, politics or terrorism for the Tribune. Instead, he wrote crime stories, covered local city council politics and monitored neighborhood action groups.

But what readers didn't know was that Fechter had recently befriended controversial terrorism expert Steve Emerson -- who has been accused of sloppy journalism and with having a pervasive anti-Arab bias -- and behind the scenes was remaking himself into a self-styled authority on terrorism. The following month the Tribune would uncork Fechter's sprawling series about Al-Arian and the alleged ties between him, his USF think tank and terrorists. The story would keep Fechter busy for the next six years, as he churned out nearly 70 stories on the topic.

But first, as a sort of dry run, Fechter wrote about the Oklahoma City bombing case. Taking the cue from his terrorist mentor Emerson, who made the same bogus claim on national television, Fechter pointed an accusatory finger at Muslims. Looking back, the glaring mistake should have raised a red flag among Tribune editors about their new in-house terrorist expert.

Thirty-seven days after the Oklahoma City miscue, Fechter's exposé landed on Page 1 of Sunday's May 28, 1995, paper. Picking up where Emerson had left off with his inflammatory 1994 documentary "Jihad in America," which argued angry Muslims at home pose a larger danger to this country than Muslim terrorists abroad, Fechter breathlessly reported that Al-Arian had raised money for Islamic groups that had killed hundreds of people around the world. In addition, Fechter wrote that World Islamic Studies Enterprises, or WISE, the USF think tank Al-Arian helped create, had associated with, and even invited to the campus, known terrorists.

As would become Fechter's custom for years to come, the evidence presented was mostly circumstantial, with guilt by association being his weapon of choice.

That was the conclusion other area journalists came to over time, with the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald both agreeing the Tribune's charges against Al-Arian were weak and revolved around questionable journalism.

John Sugg, writing in the Tampa alternative newspaper The Weekly Planet, was the most scathing, concluding, "The Tribune has woven together unproven assertions, articles from highly suspect publications and out-of-context statements."

Those types of notices probably kept the story from being picked up nationally at the time. Locally, however, the Tribune series had an enormous impact, particularly on Al-Arian's life. Spurred on by the paper's provocative charges, local law enforcement agencies launched investigations, raided the WISE office as well as Al-Arian's home and arrested his brother-in-law for deportation.

How do we know government investigators were following the Tribune's lead and not the other way around? Weeks after the first of the paper's Al-Arian stories ran, the professor's citizenship application was derailed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Al-Arian has lived in America for a quarter of a century.) Al-Arian filed a Freedom of Information request to see what secret evidence was being used to justify the delay. Two years later the INS's evidence was revealed: Tampa Tribune newspaper clippings.

Over the years the Tribune has supported Fechter, creating a separate Web page so readers could view his entire series, and often cheerleading his work from the editorial page.

And both the Tribune and Fechter enjoy staunch defenders in the community. "I felt the reporting of Tribune warranted a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting," says Norman Gross, leader of a Tampa area Jewish media-watch group.

Gross says he recently met with Tribune editors on Dec. 19 and discussed the paper's coverage. The next day the paper ran an editorial entitled "USF Gets Rid of a Hatemonger," fervently supporting USF's decision to fire the professor. That was odd, since two months earlier a Tribune editorial, while denouncing Al-Arian's actions, suggested any talk of firing him was "ridiculous." After all, asked the Tribune, "Do we want a university where there is no free expression of ideas?" Apparently, after Dec. 19, the paper's answer is yes. (Joe Guidry, who wrote the contradictory editorials, did not return calls seeking comment.)

The seeds of Al-Arian's firing were planted in Fechter's May 28, 1995, article. Some of the evidence Fechter cited in order to substantiate his claim that Al-Arian had ties to terrorists consisted of "rhetoric presented in the conferences" organized by the USF professor. Fechter also noted that Sudanese leader Hassan Turabi, whom he characterized as "the leader of a terrorist state," had visited the USF campus under Al-Arian's watch. Later, Fechter wrote ominously that Al-Arian had "lured" Turabi to USF.

Unfortunately for Fechter's alarmist thesis, on that same trip Turabi also met with Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., and the editorial board of the Washington Post, and he spoke at both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution.

Al-Arian had also founded a Palestinian advocacy group called Islamic Committee for Palestine, or ICP. In his original May 28 article, Fechter, trying to tie Al-Arian to terrorism, quoted fiery articles from an ICP publication supporting the intifada and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing -- though Fechter acknowledged that the magazine "included a disclaimer that views expressed were not necessarily the ICP's."

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