Yet another twist in the long and perplexing story of USF professor Sami Al-Arian arrived Sunday morning.
The Tampa Tribune published a front-page story accusing Al-Arian and his brother-in-law, former USF adjunct professor Mazen Al-Najjar, who is being held in prison for deportation, of having deep ties with the Palestinian Islamic militant group Jihad.
The story, written by Michael Fechter, cites as its sources unnamed members of Israel’s intelligence service. Along with the story, the newspaper published an explanation of why sources were not identified. This explanation was titled, “Security Calls for Anonymity.”
The explanation said the decision was made during editorial discussions and breaks with a normal policy of not reporting stories based on unnamed sources.
“The policy provides exceptions for circumstances in which the news is judged to be of paramount importance to the public and can be told only through the use of unnamed sources,” the explanation said.
Randy Miller, associate professor of mass communications at USF, said he would not speculate on the integrity of this particular story. He said, however, unnamed sources, while presenting problems, may be useful.
“Anytime you use anonymous sources in a story, there needs to be justification,” Miller said. “Unnamed sources are always valuable when you have somebody who is in a position of vulnerability – whistle-blowers, for example.”
Miller said the possible problem in not identifying sources may be in public perception.
“We have found over the years the public does not tend to trust (unnamed) sources as much,” Miller said. “Whether true in this instance, I could not say.”
Al-Arian, who has been the center of controversy since his Sept. 26, 2001 appearance on The O’Reilly Factor and subsequent suspension from teaching, said he was disappointed in the story. He characterized it as a smear campaign by Israeli officials.
“It’s absolute garbage,” Al-Arian said. “I hope the American public will read between the lines and realize that this is a campaign orchestrated by the foreign intelligence services through its supporters for political gains.”
Al-Arian said he isn’t sure why it is important for Israelis to paint him as a terrorist. He said he thinks the reason is his outspoken views on what he calls the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“We’ve been targets for many years. They’re not going to be satisfied,” Al-Arian said. “They don’t like people fighting back. Don’t you see who has been behind it for several years? I’m surprised people can’t see it.”
Al-Arian said he was upset the story ran on the front page. He said he did not agree with The Tampa Tribune’s explanations for accepting information for the story.
“What does that say about American journalists? To what low will they stoop?” Al-Arian said. “(It’s wrong) to have it featured as a front story, all based on campaign lies and distortions.”
According to news desk personnel at The Tampa Tribune, Fechter works under editor Pat Minarcin, and neither were in the newsroom Sunday night.
While Al-Arian is upset about personal attacks on himself, he said he is most upset by attacks on Al-Najjar, who has been in prison for almost four years during two different stints.
“The outrage in all of this is what they said about Mazen Al-Najjar,” Al-Arian said. “They make up these stories, and it puts somebody in prison.”
USF President Judy Genshaft is faced with the decision of whether to fire Al-Arian. Genshaft has gotten pressure from several sources, including the American Association for University Professors, which has threatened to censure the university if she fires Al-Arian.
Michael Reich, media relations director at USF, said Sunday’s story really doesn’t change the situation.
“They’ve connected him with Islamic Jihad for a long time,” Reich said. “This was maybe in a different context, which is irrelevant, I guess.”
Reich said Genshaft’s decision will hopefully be reached by August. He said the new allegations will be factored in with all of the other information gathered during the past nine months.
“We wouldn’t separate this from any other new information,” Reich said. “We have to evaluate all the new information to make a (good) decision.”
As for Al-Arian, he maintains, as he has for months, his innocence. He said Sunday’s story will not affect his situation.
“These allegations they brought today are easily refutable,” Al-Arian said.