Two American Muslim charities and a Georgia-based poultry company are suing CBS and a terrorism investigator for designating them, in a book and on the prime-time CBS program “60 Minutes,” as sponsors of Al Qaeda.
The Heritage Education Trust and the Safa Foundation, two Virginia-based charities under investigation for possible terrorism links, are demanding that Rita Katz, CBS and its correspondent Bob Simon pay $80 million in damages for slander and libel. In addition, Mar-Jac poultry also sued the same defendants for unspecified damages in the district court in Gainesville, Ga., blaming CBS for not correcting what it calls “libelous errors” and Katz for claiming that the 50-year-old company was laundering money for terrorist groups like al Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“We’ll defend ourselves vigorously because we believe this is a fair and accurate report,” said a “60 Minutes” spokesman on condition of anonymity. Before the expected release of a statement to news organizations on Wednesday, Katz declined to comment. At press time, the statement was not released.
Katz, an Iraqi Jew who heads the Washington-based Search for International Terrorist Entities, or SITE, is the alleged anonymous author of the book “Terrorist Hunter,” (Ecco, May 2003), which describes the investigation into the cluster of Muslim charities and groups based in Virginia.
Katz is also allegedly “Sarah,” the anonymous narrator in the May 4 broadcast of “60 Minutes” recounting the investigation and featuring the book. On the program, “Sarah” was wearing a wig and a fake nose, and her voice was altered.
Several sources confirmed that Katz was the author of the book and the “60 Minutes” protagonist.
In the broadcast and in the book, the author describes her happy childhood as a Jew in Iraq until her father was executed for alledgedly acting as a spy for the Israeli government. The family then immigrated to Israel and eventually to America, where Katz became a private terrorism investigator using her Arabic language skills to infiltrate Islamic charities by donning a burka or rummaging for files in garbage. In fact, one of the two lawsuits against Katz accuses her of trespassing the Herndon, Va., private propriety of the Islamic charities.
The two Saudi-backed charities are part of a large cluster of Muslim foundations, companies and think tanks based in Virginia that are under federal investigation for alleged ties to radical Muslim activists in Europe and Florida. They have denied the charges, and the U.S. government has not frozen their assets.
Nancy Luque, the Washington-based attorney for Heritage and Safa, said that Katz had spewed reckless information about her clients and that CBS did not offer them an opportunity to respond to the allegations. Similar charges are made in the Mar-Jac lawsuit. CBS did not return calls seeking comments.
Luque said she did not have a problem naming Katz since the researcher is known to many people in media and government circles.
“She didn’t give thought to all the people she put in danger with her reckless remarks,” Luque told the Forward. “And I doubt she’s in danger herself.”
In an ironic twist, Luque, a former federal prosecutor, defended convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in the early 1990s, but when Pollard decided to acquire Israeli citizenship in the mid-1990s — a move she opposed — the two apparently had a falling-out.
She said her clients did not know she had defended Pollard when they hired her after their offices were raided in March 2002. She said she decided to work for the two charities after investigating them and concluding that they were not involved in terrorist activities.
Moreover, Luque believes Katz has a personal interest in making the claims, noting that “60 Minutes” featured her book and that she is a paid consultant for a law firm that has filed a $1 trillion lawsuit on behalf of families of the victims of the September 11 attacks.
The firm, Motley-Rice, did not return calls seeking comments.
Several sources privy to the investigations said Katz was indeed paid for her work.
Two of those sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Katz had exaggerated her role in the Virginia investigation, drawn some reckless conclusions and lost the trust of some investigators from the FBI and Justice Department.
Katz used to work for terrorism investigator and ex-journalist Steven Emerson, who has warned for years about the terrorist links of Islamic charities in this country. After a dispute, Katz left and set up the SITE institute last year. Since then, she has been quoted in the press as a terrorism expert.
However, observers stressed that such misgivings should not deflect the attention from the bigger picture — the ongoing investigations of Islamic charities and their links to terrorist groups.
“The lawsuit reflects the ability of those organizations to use the U.S. system on their behalf,” said Yehudith Barsky, a terrorism expert with the American Jewish Committee, noting that such charities have been using lax regulations to incorporate in several states without the proper paperwork.
Experts said the lawsuit could eventually force the charities to disclose information that could be useful to investigators.