The arrest of Sami al-Arian on terrorism charges marks an epoch not only in the War on Terror, but in the history of the Bush administration. But let’s rewind:
Al-Arian, of course, is the professor at the University of South Florida who was yesterday charged with financially masterminding Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian terror group responsible for dozens of murders. He’s now probably best known for his television confrontation with Bill O’Reilly – which ended with O’Reilly telling al-Arian that if he (O’Reilly) were the CIA, he’d follow al-Arian everywhere he (al-Arian) went.
Well it looks as if the FBI has been following O’Reilly’s advice.
But if it is only now that the case against al-Arian has become strong enough for federal prosecutors to proceed with it, suspicions about his activities – and those of his brother-in-law, illegal immigrant Mazen al-Najjar – have circulated for more than a decade. You’ll find a very detailed account of those suspicions in terrorism expert’s Steve Emerson book, American Jihad, the best introduction to Islamic extremism’s infiltration into the United States. There may not have been enough hard proof to justify an arrest – but there were certainly plenty of indicators to warn prudent people that the al-Arians were folks to be avoided.
Here now is where the story gets painful for us Bush Republicans. Not only were the al-Arians not avoided by the Bush White House – they were actively courted. Candidate Bush allowed himself to be photographed with the al-Arian family while campaigning in Florida. Candidate Bush denounced the immigration laws that detained – and ultimately deported – Mazen al-Najjar. In May 2001, Sami al-Arian was invited into the White House complex for a political briefing for Muslim-American leaders. The next month his son, Abdullah, who was then an intern in the office of Congressman David Bonior, joined a delegation of Muslim leaders at a meeting with John DiIulio, head of the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. After the group entered the complex, a red flag belatedly popped up over the al-Arian name, and the Secret Service ordered him out of the complex. The entire delegation marched out with young al-Arian – and soon afterward, President Bush personally apologized to the young man and ordered the deputy director of the Secret Service to apologize as well.
(Young al-Arian published a strikingly disingenuous account of this experience in the online edition of Newsweek on – note the date – September 14, 2001. Newsweek – a magazine normally celebrated for its rigorous fact-checking – permitted young al-Arian to claim on its site that he had been “singled out” only because of his “name and physical features.” Now in one sense that’s true – had Abdullah al-Arian been named Abdullah al-Shmarian, nobody at the Secret Service would have troubled him. But al-Arian and Newsweek cooperated in leaving the reader with a very false impression that he had been the victim of some kind of bigoted anti-Muslim dragnet.)
The al-Arian case was not a solitary lapse. The Bush campaign in 2000 very determinedly reached out to Muslim voters. Indeed, Muslim-Americans may have tipped the election to George Bush. One survey suggests that the 50,000 Muslim voters of Florida, normally staunch Democrats, reacted to Al Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman as his running mate by voting 80% for Bush. That outreach campaign opened relationships between the Bush campaign and some very disturbing persons in the Muslim-American community. Many of those disturbing persons were invited to stand beside the president at post-9/11 events, like his meeting with Muslim community leaders at the Massachusetts Avenue mosque.
Over the past year, the White House has become much more selective about its invitations. More selective – but still far from selective enough.
There is one way that we Republicans are very lucky – we face political opponents too crippled by political correctness to make an issue of these kinds of security lapses. At least – so far. But who knows? The day may come when some Democrat decides he cares more about winning elections than he does about liberal pieties. Against the day, is it too much to ask a wartime White House – please, please choose your friends more prudently!
Memory failed me on point above: Sami al-Arian’s visit to the White House occurred in June 2001, not May; his son’s visit was later in the same month.