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John Sugg: Emerson, The Tampa Tribune and the Al-Arian Case (11/2/2010)

CREATIVE LOAFING

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Why won’t the Tampa Trib tell you what people in Nashville know about Steve Emerson?

November 2, 2010

John F. Sugg was editor of the Weekly Planet in the 1990s, and group senior editor of Creative Loafing Newspapers until he retired in 2008.  In his tenure, he reported extensively on the Sami Al-Arian story.  After recent negative news broke about terrorism “expert” Steven Emerson, Sugg contacted CL about filing this post.

Steven Emerson, a self-styled terrorism expert, is a guy who had a profound and caustic impact on Tampa for more than a decade. Emerson has had much less of an impact on another city, Nashville, although his corrosive brand of often-inaccurate smear jobs recently slithered into Tennessee.

Still, Nashville’s citizens know a whole lot more about Emerson than folks in Tampa, despite his relatively recent arrival on the Tennessee hate-Muslim soapbox, where he jostles for the limelight with loopy religious fanatics and just plain old-fashioned Southern bigots.

Why that imbalance of knowledge about Emerson? The answer lies in a horrible miscarriage of journalism committed over many years by The Tampa Tribune, a series of atrocities the Trib could easily correct by just providing a dash of fair and accurate reporting, something history indicates the newspaper won’t do. Nashville should be grateful that it has a newspaper, The Tennessean, which unlike the Trib will fearlessly dig out the truth.

In tandem with his vassal reporter at the Tampa Trib, Michael Fechter, Emerson waged a decade-long jihad against a professor at the University of South Florida, Sami Al-Arian, accused by Emerson and Fechter of being a terrorist mastermind. Emerson and Fechter were backed by a shadowy network of former federal agents and foreign spooks, notably a disinformation specialist for Israel’s ultra-right Likud party named Yigal Carmon and a controversial ex-FBI official named Oliver “Buck” Revell – and a lot of money whose origins have never been revealed.

However, where their information came from was clear. As the great Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz explained before Al-Arian’s 2005 federal trial: “Israel owns much of the copyright for the case; a well-informed source termed the prosecution an ‘American-Israeli co-production.’ The Americans are running the show, but behind the scenes it was the Israelis who for years collected material (and) transmitted information…” How did they transmit information? In part, via “secret evidence” slipped to our federales, evidence and accusers Al-Arian wasn’t allowed to confront (who needs that nasty old Sixth Amendment?). But reporters were also conduits for scurrilous “intelligence” claims. Fechter himself wrote that “former and current senior Israeli intelligence officials” loaded his stories with information. Those allegations, many ludicrous on their face, were rejected by a federal jury, despite a highly prejudiced judge and rulings that, if they had been issued against Martin Luther King Jr. would have prevented him from mentioning Jim Crow in his defense.

Over the years, while a Weekly Planet and Creative Loafing editor, I had a great deal of fun exposing Emerson, and the prevarications by Fechter and the federal government. I tried to put into context what the anti-Muslim crusaders were up to. I joined a rather elite cadre of journalists that had tangled with Emerson – including famed investigative reporters Seymour Hersh, Robert I. Friedman and Robert Parry, who provided me with insight into Emerson’s real agenda.

Emerson filed two bogus lawsuits against me, the Weekly Planet (AKA Creative Loafing) and an AP reporter who had told me about questions he had had over the provenance of a document Emerson gave the news service. We obtained a court order that would have forced Emerson to produce real proof of his allegations – and he knew we were digging into who he really was and who paid his bills – so he ran away from the fight he started; the good guys (me, for example) prevailed.

It’s noteworthy that a number of dispassionate analysts had observations similar to mine. New York University scholar Zachary Lockman, for example, (as quoted on “Right Web”) wrote in 2005: “[Emerson's] main focus during the 1990s was to sound the alarm about the threat Muslim terrorists posed to the United States. By the end of that decade Emerson was describing himself as a ‘terrorist expert and investigator’ and ‘Executive Director, Terrorism Newswire, Inc.’ Along the way, critics charged, Emerson had sounded many false alarms, made numerous errors of fact, bandied accusations about rather freely, and ceased to be regarded as credible by much of the mainstream media . The September 11 attacks seemed to bear out Emerson’s warnings, but his critics might respond that even a stopped clock shows the right time twice a day.”

Again, it’s sadly significant that the Trib never even provided such mild doses of context about its primary source, Emerson, in its inflammatory, intentionally erroneous and misleading, and often racist diatribes against Al-Arian. The Trib still gives Emerson ink – never questioning his claims and guilt-by-association-and-innuendo tactics, and never vetting his background, associations, financing and motives.

Some insight on Emerson’s millions has now been provided by The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, citing the Tennessean’s reports, on Oct. 26 awarded Emerson his nightly “Worst Person in the World” citation. Olbermann expressed regret that the network had previously used Emerson as a chattering head on terrorism topics. (Similarly, CBS did not renew its contract with Emerson after he claimed that the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing had “a Middle Eastern trait” because it was carried out “with the intent to inflict as many casualties as possible.” That was a big “Oops.”)

The Tennessean reported that Emerson collects money through a non-profit, the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, and then funnels that money to his for-profit SAE (as in Steven A. Emerson) Productions. Quoting Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog group, the Nashville paper reported: “Basically, you have a nonprofit acting as a front organization, and all that money going to a for-profit. It’s wrong. This is off the charts.”

That little bit of information on Emerson, contained in one report, is far more than the Trib told you about Emerson over a decade – despite Emerson using the Trib to provoke a legal firestorm that is still ongoing.

You do recall the firestorm, right? Emerson and Fechter launched a series of series of attacks on Muslims. No amount of hyperbole and vitriol-spewing was considered excessive by the Trib or Emerson. Fechter, for example, darkly hinted that the FBI found documents about MacDill Air Force Base among Al-Arian’s papers, insinuating some dastardly design. Nope. Al-Arian had twice been invited to speak to large groups of military and intelligence officers, and the sinister documents were, well, just the hand-out materials. Fechter, following the lead of his guru, Emerson, also tried to blame the Oklahoma City bombing on Arabs, an egregiously false story the Trib has never seen fit to correct. Emerson, meanwhile, said in February 1996 that Palestinian advocates at USF were involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Emerson promised proof “in the near term.” The proof never came, and the Justice Department said it had no records supporting the allegation.

You think the Trib might have called Emerson on that one? Hahaha.

The former head of the criminal division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa, Robert O’Neill, twice concluded during the 1990s there was no evidence to prosecute Al-Arian, according to my multiple sources in the Justice Department. I don’t like quoting anonymous sources so I’ll be clear: O’Neill, now the U.S. Attorney for Florida’s Middle District, himself told me he had looked at the evidence found no reason to prosecute. In 1998, the then FBI counterterrorism chief Bob Blitzer also told me “no federal laws were broken” by the Tampa Muslims.

Yet, after 9/11, propelled by hate-Muslim diatribes from Bill O’Reilly (who had been funneled highly slanted information by Fechter) and the fear by Jeb Bush that the University of South Florida would conclude a settlement with Al-Arian that would prove embarrassing to the Bushite regimes in Washington and Tallahassee, the federal government indicted Al-Arian. The trial concluded with the government failing to win a single guilty verdict against Al-Arian or his co-defendants, an immense disaster for the Bush Justice Department.

Al-Arian later plea bargained in order to preclude another trial on counts on which the jury didn’t reach a verdict – although notably no more than two jurors felt he was guilty on even those “hung” counts.  Al-Arian’s plea bargain stipulated that he had had no involvement in terrorist activities. Rather, he had provided some minor support to people who might have become terrorists, although it’s clear from the trial that any such activities by Al-Arian occurred when they were legal. The plea agreement supposedly ended all business between Al-Arian and the federal government. However, due to legal chicanery by a rogue federal prosecutor in Virginia, Gordon Kromberg – who has been called a doppelganger of Emerson – Al-Arian remains entangled in federal courts and on house arrest.

According to my federal sources, the Al-Arian case cost our government at least $50 million, and, no, the Trib and Emerson didn’t offer to pay part of bill (you and I had that honor). And, with so many FBI agents chasing a guy whose “guilt” was mostly in exercising his First Amendment rights, the FBI missed another fellow flitting around Florida, a real terrorist with blood on his mind, Mohammed Atta.

The final chapters in the Trib’s pogroms against Muslims had a sadly humorous angle. Fechter, who had long been a tool of Emerson’s, finally got slightly honest and went to work for his mentor. And Fechter dumped his wife and children and shacked up with one of the federal prosecutors who tried Al-Arian. I don’t recall where Fechter got his journalism training, but he must have skipped the classes on journalistic objectivity and not sleeping with your sources.

So, The Tennessean’s articles might have provided an excellent opportunity for the Trib to revisit and maybe heal a terrible wound it was complicit in inflicting in Tampa. On Friday, I asked Trib Managing Editor Richard “Duke” Maas if he had such an inclination – heck, I inquired, aren’t you interested in what The Tennessean wrote about a guy who had so much impact on Tampa and your newspaper? Well, not really, Maas responded, sounding more irritated than journalistically curious. He added that Fechter had left the newspaper, which I gather meant he felt the Trib was thereby absolved of responsibility.

If you happen to have a spare backbone, you might send it to the pathetic folks at The Tampa Tribune.

John F. Sugg was editor of the Weekly Planet in the 1990s, and group senior editor of Creative Loafing Newspapers until he retired in 2008.

Documents & Releases

Statement of Chairs of American Muslim Task-Force on Civil Rights and Elections  (AMT) and  Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)

Howard Zinn Statement on Professor Al-Arian

SITE SEARCH

SPOTLIGHT

March 2000

December 2005alarian.jpg

January 2009

To be patriotic is to be able to question government policy in times of crisis.
To be patriotic is to stand up for the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in times of uncertainty and insecurity.
To be patriotic is to  speak up against the powerful in defense of the weak and the voiceless.
To be patriotic is to be willing to pay the price to preserve our freedoms, dignity, and rights.
To be patriotic is to
challenge the abuses of the PATRIOT Act.
From a speech by Dr. Al-Arian
9/1/2002

Biography---

UFF Summary: Al-Arian and USF

Poetry

Announcement of Book: The Al-Arian Reader

A new compilation of all relevant articles to be released soon by the National Liberty Fund

Selected Poems
by Sami Al-Arian

We Shall Rise

To Maya Angelou
Like the dream of the slave
You rise
And with the scream of the brave
I shall rise
In honoring the memory of your ancestors
You rise
With my stateless brothers and sisters
I shall rise
Like dust in the sunlight
You rise
And as ashes in a fiery night
I shall rise
You offend
Because of your existence
And I
For my resistance
You upset them
Recalling their past
And I
By holding steadfast
They may trod you in dirt
May cause me all the hurt
Inflict upon you excruciating pain
While they shut me up and detain
But they won't see you broken
Neither would my faith be forsaken
As you've never bowed your head
And never lowered your eyes
I'll continue to raise my fist
And hide my mother's cries
They may shoot you with their words
Cut me up with their swords
They may insult you with their eyes
Denigrate me with their lies
Trying to kill you with their hate
Bury me alive to seal my fate
But they'd certainly
Be shamed and fail
As the free chant and sing
On their march to prevail
So keep your head held high
As I follow you and try
And keep your beautiful smile
As I walk my first mile
They'll pressure and blame
Throw us in prison to control and tame
They'll exile and defame
Lynch us all or shoot and maim
Burn crosses with no shame
Target our children in a dirty game
But why is that a surprise?
Despite their evil and terror
Their falsehood and lies
You shall rise
And I shall rise
You're the black ocean
Leaping and wide
I'm the Mediterranean
With a stormy tide
Staying together
Side by side
It's no surprise
We shall rise
Surely shall rise
We together shall rise
No Longer Afraid
For us to feel "secure"
What price is being paid?
If living in freedom
Why are we afraid?
Fear is everywhere
All around
Perhaps irrational
But without any bound
You can see it on our faces
Sense it in our eyes
You can hear it in our whispers
Feel it in our cries
More>>No Longer Afraid
The Bird and The Vulture
The bird was chirping
In a house on a tree
But the vulture was angry
Because it was free
When the bird is singing
The vulture ain't safe
More>>The Bird and The Vulture
The Smile of Freedom
He looked like
A body-builder
Tall, tough, and full
All muscles and no fat
His mind was simple
Suited to follow orders
No questions asked
Acting mean and mechanical
Like any bureaucrat
More>>The Smile ...
In the Name of Freedom
In the name of freedom
We shall rule the world
To spread democracy
And set you free
In the name of freedom
We’ll descend on you
To make you civilized
Modern and orderly
More>>In the Name ...
The Accused: Franz Kafka Meets George Orwell in 21st Century America
Act I: The Mother of all Evidence
Act II- Weapons of Mass Deception
Act III: Silencing of the Lambs
Act IV: Attacks of the Wolves
Act V: Occupied Territory
Act VI: Police State
Act VII: Official Obituary
Act VIII: A Close Encounter of the Scariest Kind
Act IX: The Inquisition
Act X- Conspiracy Theory
Act XI- Secret Trials
Act XII- Silent Pain and Teary Eyes
Act XIII- True Patriot Acts
Do Not Sign
Rights are not for sale
History is not kind
On those who sell their people out,
Betray their cause,
Surrender their land
To tow the line
Do not sign
More>>Do Not Sign
Rachel Corrie: Daughter of Palestine
The most gentle
Amongst all honorable
Women
Had a spirit
As dazzling as
The garden of
Eden
More>>Daughter of Palestine
Ole Jerusalem
O Ole Jerusalem
I feel your pain
I hear your cries
The light thunder
In the darkness
And the heavy rain
I see the steady bleeding
Of your wound
With its mark and stain
More>>Ole Jerusalem
Patrick Henry
A revolutionary
At heart
A patriot
From the start
Loved by his country
To the core
Defended freedom
Even more
Hated arrogance
In shape and tone
Fought tyranny
With every bone
He was the conscience
Of his people
Striking fear in the enemy
And made it feeble
More>> Patrick Henry
Injustice
An overwhelming feeling
Of bitterness
Emptiness
Hopelessness
Helplessness
Sadness
Madness
Of hatred and rage
Trapped in a cage
Disappointment and anger
Continuing to linger
Wounding of dignity
Violating your virginity
More>> Injustice
Political Riddles
He sees the world as black and white
His solution to every quandary is fight with might
The economy will not stimulate
Because he can’t articulate
While jobs are gone
He says, “bring ‘em on.”
Who is he?
He likes to be called the General
The head of an agency that’s federal
If you spit on the sidewalk
He’ll send the Incredible Hulk
He hates to cite truth or fact
Because he’s busy promoting his unpatriotic act
He frequents TV cameras with a smash
The first part of his last name sounds like trash
Who is he?
He is the ideal dutiful poodle they say
From an empire where the sun did not set one day
He adores his cowboy friend and considers him a fan
And insists: I’m nobody’s yes-man
When the cowboy says no, I say no
Who is he?
More>>Political Riddles