Bush's War on Civil Liberties: The Case of Sami Al-Arian
By PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS
and LAWRENCE M. STRATTON
June 3, 2008
The George W. Bush administration responded to the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon with an assault on U.S. civil liberty that Bush justified in the name of the “war on terror.” The government assured us that the draconian measures apply only to “terrorists.” The word terrorist, however, was not defined. The government claimed the discretionary power to decide who is a terrorist without having to present evidence or charges in a court of law.
The Case of Sami Al-Arian
The demise of the Rights of Englishmen, the unaccountability of police and prosecutors, the witch-hunt atmosphere created by the “war on terror,” the government’s need to find terrorist suspects in order to maintain the public’s alarm, and the sadistic and bigoted attitudes of many prison guards and even federal prosecutors and judges toward Muslims have resulted in the use of law for persecution. The case of Sami Al-Arian, who was a professor of computer science at the University of South Florida, is a pure example of the use of law as a weapon for persecution.
Most Americans know only the Israeli side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian side is rarely heard. Even prominent Americans, such as former president Jimmy Carter, who point out that there are two sides to the story, are subjected to demonization and name-calling. Sami Al-Arian was gaining success as a voice for a more even-handed Middle East policy. He spoke to intelligence personnel and military commanders at MacDill Air Force Central Command. He gave interviews. He even invited the FBI to attend meetings where he spoke.
This was too much for the Israeli Lobby, which has enjoyed a total monopoly on the explanation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. The hysteria following 9/11 created the opportunity to destroy Sami Al-Arian. Alexander Cockburn (CounterPunch, March 3, 2007) reports that “at the direct instigation of Attorney General Ashcroft” trumped-up terrorism and conspiracy charges were leveled at Al-Arian.
The neoconservative media and right-wing talk radio went to work on Al-Arian. Pushed by Gov. Jeb Bush, the university fired him. He was arrested and deemed too dangerous for bail. He was held in solitary confinement for two and a half years while the federal government tried to manufacture some evidence against him. Wikipedia reports that “Amnesty International said Al-Arian’s pre-trial conditions ‘appeared to be gratuitously punitive’ and stated ‘the restrictions imposed on Dr. Al-Arian appeared to go beyond what were necessary on security grounds and were inconsistent with international standards for humane treatment.’”
The government failed to produce any evidence. The jury acquitted Al-Arian on all serious charges and voted 10–2 for acquittal on all other charges. The jury acquitted him despite U.S. District Court judge James Moody’s many biased rulings against Al-Arian.
Knowing that Al-Arian and his family could not stand the strain of solitary confinement for another two and a half years while a new case was prepared, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would retry him. His attorney urged him to make a plea in order to end the ordeal.
Al-Arian’s plea is innocuous and bears no relationship to the serious charges on which he was tried. According to Wikipedia, as part of the plea agreement “the government acknowledged that Al-Arian’s activities were non-violent and that there were no victims to the charge in the plea agreement.”
Under the plea agreement, Al-Arian’s sentence amounted essentially to time served, but he was double-crossed by Judge Moody, who according to Alexander Cockburn used “inflamed language about Al-Arian having blood on his hands” (a charge rejected by the jury) and handed down the maximum sentence.
The “terrorist” prosecutors had yet more in store for Al-Arian. In October 2006, federal prosecutor Gordon Kromberg, reportedly “notorious as an Islamophobe,” demanded, in violation of the plea agreement, that Al-Arian testify before a grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, investigating an Islamic research center. According to Wikipedia, “in a verbal agreement that appears in court transcripts, federal prosecutors agreed [as part of the plea agreement] that Al-Arian would not have to testify in Virginia.”
Al-Arian’s lawyers saw Kromberg’s subpoena of their client as a setup, and Al-Arian refused to testify. On January 22, 2007, Al-Arian was brought before a federal judge on contempt charges. He described to the judge the extraordinary abuse he had suffered at the hands of federal prison officials. The guards and officers all felt free to abuse Al-Arian, because they had heard the lie on right-wing talk radio and from neoconservative media that he was a terrorist who hated Americans. The hostile judge sentenced Al-Arian to eighteen months more on a civil contempt charge for refusing to testify about a case that he knew nothing about.
Kromberg contrived to put Al-Arian in a situation in which truthful answers in court under oath could be turned into a perjury charge by offering the defendants reduced charges in exchange for their testimony that Al-Arian was involved with them in some alleged activity and lied under oath. Alternatively, Al-Arian would be cited for civil contempt for refusal to testify. The ease with which Kromberg violated the plea agreement and abused the prosecutorial power in full view of federal judges should give pause to every American.
When a university professor, who has done nothing but try to correct the one-sided story Americans are fed about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can be treated in this way by the U.S. Department of Justice, civil liberty in the United States is in a precarious condition.
The ease with which Al-Arian was transformed into a terrorist should be a lesson to us all. People in charge of Homeland Security are no less inclined than police and prosecutors to make expansive interpretations of their mandate and what constitutes terrorism and suspect behavior. On May 28, 2007, the Associated Press reported that the Alabama Department of Homeland Security had included among terrorist groups listed on its Web site environmentalists, antiwar protesters, abortion opponents, and gay- and animal-rights advocates. It is an ancient practice of government to hype fear in order to gain arbitrary power that can be turned against anyone. Perhaps this expansive definition of terrorist explains the eighty thousand names on the government’s no-fly list.