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As the primary nears, Senate opponents are asking: When she was USF president, why didn't Betty Castor fire suspected terrorist supporter Sami Al-Arian?
By ANITA KUMAR
Published July 11, 2004
TAMPA - Over Sunday brunch of bagels and egg salad, an almost exclusively Jewish crowd at a Bayshore Boulevard condo peppered Betty Castor with questions about why she didn't fire Sami Al-Arian from the University of South Florida.
Castor reminded them what she did as USF president:
She suspended him. She launched an investigation. She asked the federal government for help.
It's the same message Castor has taken on the road in recent weeks as she campaigns for the U.S. Senate, defending decisions she made nearly a decade ago when the computer science professor was being investigated for raising money for terrorists.
"Some Jews think unless she burned his house down, she didn't do enough," said Herb Berkowitz, a Tampa lawyer who hosted the brunch after Castor eased his doubts. "But I felt satisfied. She told me her hands were tied."
Others say she had plenty of ammunition to fire Al-Arian.
"She stonewalled quite a bit," said Norman Gross, president of Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting. "She brushed it off."
Castor had expected Al-Arian to surface as an issue in the Senate race. She talked strategy with her staff last year, and has tried to spin the story before others did, touting her real-life experience with terrorism and support of the Patriot Act.
But in recent weeks, with the three major Democratic candidates agreeing on virtually all major issues, how Castor handled Al-Arian has come to dominate the race.
Recent polls show Castor leading U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Hollywood and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas in the Aug. 31 primary. Whether she keeps that lead could depend largely on how she defends herself against attacks from Deutsch's supporters.
She does that now by explaining the Al-Arian situation, sometimes in one-on-one chats and sometimes in groups with Jewish voters who are often supporters of Deutsch, an Orthodox Jew.
But it will be difficult once 30-second TV ads attempting to tie her to terrorism begin to air. Decisions Castor made prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks may not play as well today.
"We are prepared for it," Castor said. "If they try to make me out as a big friend of terrorists, they're going to have a tough time."
Castor was in her first year at USF in 1994 when allegations begin to surface against Al-Arian, then a computer science professor working toward tenure.
A PBS documentary, Jihad in America, alleged Al-Arian was the head of the Islamic Jihad's domestic support network. The Tampa Tribune followed with a two-part series linking Al-Arian to fundraising and politicking for terrorist groups.
The FBI contacted USF for information on Al-Arian and others, and later searched Al-Arian's home and offices.
Gross' Promoting Responsibility in Middle East Reporting encouraged Castor to fire Al-Arian even before the PBS documentary made the allegations national news.
"There was no legally usable evidence," said Roy Weatherford, head of the USF faculty union, which supported Al-Arian in the name of academic freedom. "You can't fire somebody because you are suspicious."
Instead, Castor put Al-Arian on paid leave for two years and hired William Reece Smith, a prominent lawyer with close ties to the school, to investigate. Smith concluded Castor could not fire Al-Arian without facing possible legal action.
"I'm afraid all this is politics, not law or educational responsibility," said Smith, who supports Castor's Senate bid.
Castor has repeatedly said she never got "one iota" of information from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.
Al Robinson, who headed the FBI's Tampa office when Castor was USF president, has said she asked for more information but was not told anything.
But she did see affidavits, unsealed in 1996, used to support the search of Al-Arian's home and offices. They indicated the FBI had probable cause to believe Al-Arian's think tank and charity were fronts for terrorists.
John Loftus, a Tampa lawyer who sued Al-Arian for his alleged terrorist acts, said he never knew Castor had that kind of crucial information until recently. A former federal prosecutor turned radio commentator, Loftus is speaking out against Castor.
"It's one thing to be an innocent victim," he said. "It's another to say "I don't want to know about that.' It's an example of extreme negligence."
Throughout her tenure, Castor issued public statements denouncing terrorism. But she also questioned USF's role several times.
In a June 1995 memo to her staff, Castor explained her concern that the school should "be the arbiter of what political, social or religious ideology is "good' or "evil.' "
Castor left in 1999. Al-Arian was indicted four years later after the Patriot Act allowed intelligence information to be used in the criminal investigation.
USF president Judy Genshaft fired him a week later.
The criticisms of Castor are garnering intense interest outside the Tampa Bay area, where voters are less familiar with the Al-Arian saga.
The American Democracy Project, an independent political group run by a longtime friend of Deutsch, is leading the charge. It has hired an investigator to review hundreds of USF documents, and issues news releases about its findings. TV ads may be next.
"I think that a real leader would have challenged this and done something to try to get to the bottom of what was going on," said Bernie Friedman, leader of the group, which plans to launch a Web site castortruth.org this week. "She showed a callous disregard for what was going on at USF."
Adam Goodman, a Tampa campaign consultant not involved in the race, said the attacks arose earlier than he expected and have been taken seriously.
"The launch of this was skillfully handled," he said. "It's going to be a long eight weeks."
Castor initially ignored the attacks. But in recent weeks she has fought back. She accused the American Democracy Project of being a front for Deutsch and demanded it reveal its donors. She asked U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for help. And she is heavily courting Jewish voters.
"It doesn't mean anything to me," said Stephen Turner, a Jewish lawyer in Tallahassee who said he has voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past. "It's not her job to police for terrorism."
The Jewish Journal in South Florida wrote in a July 1 editorial: "The smearing of another candidate not only weakens democracy but also is an affront to Jewish tradition. It is a pity that the only Jew in the race, an "observant' Jew as well, is this the only one of the three candidates to stoop to this level."
Republican strategist Richard Pinsky, an adviser to GOP Senate candidate Doug Gallagher, predicted the issue won't give Deutsch the nomination. He said it will help Deutsch in areas where he already is strong: Jewish enclaves in South Florida.
Martin Press, a Broward County lawyer active in the Jewish community, said voters in South Florida are talking about Al-Arian but that many had already made up their minds. He supported Deutsch before he heard the details about Castor's role in the Al-Arian saga, and still does.
"It should be an issue," he said. "She could have gone further."
Publicly, Deutsch has avoided the Al-Arian attacks, maintaining that he has nothing to do with American Democracy Project, though his former campaign finance director has helped the group raise money.
"I'm running my own positive campaign," he has said repeatedly. Campaign laws forbid Deutsch from being privy to what the group does.
Penelas said he doesn't plan to criticize Castor but said he expects Republicans will use Al-Arian against her if she wins the primary.
"My concern with that issue is an electability one," he said. "We've done polling that shows that it will be used by Republicans, and it will cost us the seat if she is the nominee."
But the GOP has ties to Al-Arian, too.
Al-Arian campaigned for President Bush in 2000, posed for a photo with him at Plant City's Strawberry Festival in March of that year and said publicly that Muslims in Florida may have tipped the close presidential election to Bush.
- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story. Anita Kumar can be reached at email@example.com or 727 893-8472.
[Last modified July 11, 2004, 01:00:43]