In the summer of 2000, Sami Al-Arian was scrambling for proof that he and fellow Muslims in Tampa were engaged in legitimate charitable efforts, not terrorism, according to wiretapped conversations introduced this week at his federal conspiracy trial.
The reason: Mazen Al-Najjar, Al-Arian's brother-in-law, who had spent three years in jail based on secret evidence, was facing deportation, and Al-Arian wanted to show that his activities had been on the up and up.
To this end, Al-Arian gathered receipts from hospitals and clinics in the occupied territories going back a decade, totaling $76,000, to show that money sent there, with Al-Najjar's assistance, was for charitable purposes and not for terrorism.
Prosecutors have implied that Al-Arian's solicitation of the receipts throws them into question. They also have introduced evidence alleging that Al-Najjar was one of Palestinian Islamic Jihad's higher ranking leaders when he was in Tampa. In his attempt to help Al-Najjar in 2000, Al-Arian also asked a friend to get Vince Cannistraro, a former top CIA counterintelligence official in the Clinton administration, to testify for Al-Najjar.
"He hasn't said yes or no," Al-Arian said in a taped phone conversation.
Al-Arian also arranged a magazine interview with Abd Al Aziz Awda, with whom Al-Najjar associated, to show that Awda, who was accused of being a Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader, had been allowed by Israel to return to the occupied territories.
"Meaning that there is nothing on him," Al-Arian said in the taped conversation.
Prosecutors also read excerpts from conversations of co-defendant Sameeh Hammoudeh to show that he helped get some of the receipts Al-Arian was seeking, and also transferred money to the occupied territories in the fall of 2000.
Buried in several of Hammoudeh's conversations with an "unidentified male" in October 2000 is surprising inside information on the private views of Palestinian Authority's leader Yasser Arafat about ongoing peace negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
Despite what Arafat was saying publicly about supporting the negotiations, Hammoudeh's telephone conversations tell a different story, according to the prosecution's evidence. Unidentified Male: "Abu Ammar (Arafat) told me that everything has been screwed up . . . Since February (he) has been hopeless, finished. From February . . . eight months ago . . . (Arafat) has had a closing with this Barak . . . I sat with (Arafat) in his room and he told me: 'It's useless.' But he doesn't say this on television. He says 'my partner.'
"We sat with (Arafat) . . . and he told me that it was over . . . and we should seek other avenues. . . . "Do whatever you see fit. Military action if you want to, or whatever. . . . I will not interfere.' " He offered this summary of Arafat's private words to him: "Proceed and do not be afraid. Anything I do or say, ignore me."
The caller tells Hammoudeh that he will help him financially so that Hammoudeh can quit working for Al-Arian in Tampa and complete his doctoral dissertation at the University of South Florida.