WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is being accused of putting politics ahead of policy for dismissing a Secret Service notice and welcoming terrorism suspect Sami Al-Arian into the White House complex for a June 2001 meeting.
Al-Arian, a Florida professor indicted last week for his alleged role as a leader of a Palestinian Islamic terrorist group, attended a group meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building with White House political director Karl Rove in June 2001.
Al-Arian was part of a 160-person group from the American Muslim Council that was briefed by Rove on President Bush’s faith-based agenda and other issues, according to AMC spokesman Faiz Rehman. Rehman characterized the meeting as routine, and said that Al-Arian had attended such events before.
But according to press reports, Al-Arian had already been under federal investigation for six years for suspected ties to the Islamic Jihad terrorist group at the time of the 2001 meeting. Further, the White House confirmed reports that Al-Arian had been flagged by the Secret Service as a potential terrorist. According to a report published in the current issue of Newsweek, White House aides, reluctant to create an incident, let him participate in the event despite the warning. Vice President Dick Cheney, who had been scheduled to meet with the group, canceled his appearance, reportedly under pressure from Jewish activists and conservative critics.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters that the Secret Service had alerted the White House that Al-Arian was under investigation, but he said that such a warning is not necessarily grounds to block a visit. Fleischer noted that Yasser Arafat has been to the White House many times.
Critics were unimpressed with the explanations. “Why did Bush and his aides do it? Either they think there is an electoral advantage, or they don’t give a damn,” said Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York. “And if in fact the Secret Service warned them about this person, then there is no excuse.”
Nadler said the incident was symptomatic of the Bush administration’s laxity in its contacts with Islamic activists. “The Bush campaign went to these people and they helped them win the campaign in 2000,” Nadler said. “Now, they obviously formed some ties with people and they don’t vet them very carefully.”
Al-Arian, in fact, boasted of having helped get out the Florida Muslim vote for Bush in 2000. Footage aired this week by NBC News showed Al-Arian telling a Muslim crowd at a fundraiser last April: “I wanted to talk about the last elections because I think I personally played a big role in electing Bush.” Al-Arian continued: “Gore ignored us, Bush did not ignore us, in fact, everything we asked him for he did.”
Further embarrassing the president, a photo surfaced this week showing then-Governor Bush and his wife Laura campaigning in Florida in March 2000, standing with Al-Arian and his family. Such a photo is routine practice in campaigns, a White House spokeswoman told reporters. But on that occasion, Al-Arian told colleagues, the Florida professor confronted Bush on the Justice Department’s policy of relying on secret evidence in deportation proceedings against suspected Muslim terrorists. Al-Arian interpreted a comment Bush made on this issue in a debate with Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore as sympathetic to Muslims’ concerns, and decided to campaign for him, he told friends according to press reports.
“This is what happens when you have a White House that is so politicized, where policy is so often viewed and is made through the prism of politics,” said Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “It’s scary when politics drives policy because then you have people with unsavory reputation, who come into the White House.”
Daniel Pipes, a conservative scholar known for his close scrutiny of militants within American Muslim organizations, said he had written a year ago about Al-Arian visiting the White House on four occasions. “No one paid attention,” Pipes told the Forward. He expressed hope that the tempest over the visit would increase public awareness and scrutiny over the prominence of supporters of militant Islam on American university campuses and among American Muslim organizations.
Rehman, the American Muslim Council spokesman, denied that his organization is militant or supportive of militant views or groups. Arguing that the council, established 13 years ago, is the oldest American Muslim organization, he said his group rejects violence and is “the most mainstream” of American Muslim organizations. “We don’t support Israel’s occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, but we are in favor of finding a peaceful way to end it, through negotiations,” he said. Rehman insisted that the AMC does not support Islamic Jihad or Hamas in any way, either materially or morally.