November 2, 2010 at 7:49 am by Mitch Perry
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’aretzexplained 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 contextwhat 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 and 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 the 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 TribManaging 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.