Stale charges doomed case

Jurors in al-Arian trial unmoved by old, tenuous evidence presented by U.S. government


WASHINGTON - It was, by some accounts, the most important terrorism-related trial in the United States since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 - an ambitious undertaking that spanned five months and included dozens of government witnesses and hundreds of pages of transcripts of wiretapped phone calls dating to the 1990s.

But on Tuesday, the Justice Department's case against a former college professor, Sami al-Arian, and his co-defendants for financing and promoting Middle Eastern terrorism - a case that had been in the works for more than a decade - collapsed in a Florida courtroom with acquittals nearly across the board. After a recent string of victories, the stunning verdicts have cast a pall over the Bush administration's war on terrorism in the courts.

What happened?

While prosecutors are still picking up the pieces, the verdict suggests an aversion by jurors to convict those who might be only indirectly involved in violence, especially where their targets are not American citizens. Prosecutors might also have made strategic blunders in how they presented certain evidence to the jury, including devoting days to reading transcripts of translated phone calls that struck some observers as tedious and overkill.

But the outcome also reflects a paradox of the USA Patriot Act, the terrorism-fighting law enacted after the attacks in New York and Washington that the Justice Department said was instrumental in bringing charges against al-Arian.

The law essentially breathed life into an old case by allowing the government to combine the work of intelligence and criminal investigators. But the case turned out to be so old and tenuous that jurors were unmoved. That is bad news for prosecutors in other pending high-profile matters in the government's "cold case" file - including a recent indictment that features erstwhile "dirty bomb" suspect Jose Padilla.

"What this case shows is, when you cannot connect the dots until the dots are stale, people are not all that interested in the dots," said Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who represented the government in several major terrorism cases in New York.

The verdict also revives a debate over whether the government was too slow to act on intelligence it gathered in the 1990s about al-Arian and other suspects.

"If everyone was playing off the same sheet of music, maybe this case gets indicted in 1997 instead of 2003," McCarthy said.

Al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, was for years a computer engineering professor at the University of South Florida and was well known in the Tampa area for his Palestinian activism. Suspicions about his links to terrorists first arose in 1994, when he was featured in a PBS documentary, Jihad in America, that identified him as a leading fundraiser for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that is known for suicide bombings and calls for the destruction of Israel. The concern grew after a man he hired to run a Tampa think tank left the United States to become the new head of the Palestinian group.

The government launched an intelligence investigation of al-Arian in the mid-1990s, acquiring dozens of secret wiretaps and generating more than 20,000 hours of intercepted telephone calls. But despite the years of intense surveillance, U.S. officials were slow to seek charges against him. Officials have long cited the mythical "wall" that prohibited intelligence agents from sharing information with prosecutors - a barrier removed by the Patriot Act.

Over the years, al-Arian became a prominent civil rights advocate and spokesman for Palestinian causes. As part of a Muslim affairs group, months before the Sept. 11 attacks, he was even once briefed in the White House.

He was charged in a February 2003 indictment that accused him of supporting terrorist bombings in Israel, using an academic think tank and a Tampa charity he founded as fundraising fronts.

At trial, the government put on a sprawling case, including hours of transcripts of secretly monitored telephone conversations, graphic videos and testimony from more than 80 witnesses.

But the government was unable to link al-Arian to a single illegal act. There was a profusion of evidence that he sent money to what defense attorneys called the charitable arm of the Palestinian groups, including the families of four killers imprisoned for murdering three Israeli soldiers in the early 1990s.

But the jury concluded that supporting needy families of killers was not tantamount to aiding terrorists.

Al-Arian was found not guilty on eight counts, and a judge declared a mistrial on nine others. He remains in prison while the government decides whether to seek a new trial.

Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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