The son of a USF professor had to leave a White House meeting.
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 30, 2001
WASHINGTON -- President Bush issued an apology Friday over the removal of Abdullah Al-Arian, son of a University of South Florida professor, from a White House meeting of Muslim officials.
"The president is very concerned that an action was taken that was wrong, inappropriate, and the president apologizes for it on behalf of the White House," press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
A uniformed Secret Service officer ordered Al-Arian, a congressional intern and Duke University senior, to leave a briefing Thursday of Muslim officials. Al-Arian's father, USF professor Sami Al-Arian, has been entangled in an investigation of terrorists. His uncle is Mazen Al-Najjar, a Palestinian who was jailed for three years on secret evidence the government said showed he had ties to terrorists. He was freed in December.
When Abdullah Al-Arian left the meeting, more than 20 Muslim leaders decided to walk out with him.
Secret Service spokesman Jim Mackin later said his agency erred in ordering Al-Arian out. Once the Secret Service realized its mistake, it offered Al-Arian re-entry. But the group, which was there to hear about the president's plans to contract with religious groups to run soup kitchens, health clinics and other social services, declined.
"In this one instance, the Secret Service made a mistake. The president is concerned about it to the point where he does apologize," Fleischer said.
Abdullah Al-Arian was inundated for requests for interviews Friday and talked to CNN and Fox TV, among others.
The assistant deputy director of the Secret Service, Paul Irving, apologized for the misunderstanding in person, Al-Arian said, visiting him in the Capitol office of U.S. Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., where Al-Arian works as an intern.
"I have to be worried somewhat about what it means for my future," Al-Arian said of the incident that made him look like a suspect. "But I feel that it's something that I have to do now. It's given me a platform to speak -- something my uncle never had during three years in jail."
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations who participated in Thursday's aborted meeting, welcomed Bush's apology and said, "We hope this will lead to better interaction between the White House and the Muslim community."
The council had sent Bush a letter after the incident asking him to meet personally with Muslim leaders and appoint a special White House liaison to the Muslim-American community to "dispel impressions within the Muslim community that there's some kind of exclusion from his policymaking circles," Hooper said.
- Times staff writer Susan Aschoff contributed to this report.