Skip to comments.Emerson Drops His Lawsuit
Posted on 05/22/2003 1:14:00 PM PDT by FloridaGeezer
Pseudo-journalist balks after judge asks for proof
Controversial "journalist" Steven Emerson has abandoned his four-year-old libel suit against the Weekly Planet and former editor John Sugg.
Emerson's retreat, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court last Friday, came as he faced increasing pressure from the Planet and the circuit judge to back-up some of his more outlandish claims weith public evidence.
"Emerson never had a case," Planet publisher Ben Eason said Monday. "He knew he never had a case. That's why he kept referring to secret evidence. At the point when a judge demanded that Emerson reveal the identity of his associates and the identify of his sources, he turned tail and ran."
What made Ememrson's lawsuit particularly galling, Eason said, wasa that it seemed designed mainly to intimidate he Planet and other independent news outlets from honest reporting-a curious campaign for a supposed journalist to wage.
"Sugg's stories were accurate when he labeled Emerson a pseudo-journalist," newspaper attorney David M. Snyder said. :No self-respecting reporter would try to deter another journalist from reporting a story. They would publish their their own views and try to win in the marketplace of ideas, not in court."
Emerson promotes himself as an investigative reporter with special knowledge of radical Islamic terrorists. His critics say his work reads more like propaganda, tilted toward the interests of Isreal's right wing.
In any case, his credibility has waxed and and waned over the years. His 1994 documentary Jihad in America aired on PBS and was the driving force behind the Tampa Tribune's campaign against University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, now facing federal conspiracy charges related to terrorist bombings in Isreal. At the same time, Emerson's documented gaffes included his insistence that radical Muslims were behind the Oklahoma City bombing and a promise that federal officials would soon link Tampa residents to the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center bombing. Those mistakes, along with his insistence on anonymous sources and perchant for threatening anyone who challenged him, caused a growing number of maintream news agencies to view him with suspicion.
More recently, Emerson's stock has been rising in some quarters, as American's hunger for information about terrorism has grown in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the lawsuit, Emerson claimed that Sugg defamed him in a 1998 Weekly Planet column. Sugg quoted a U.S. Justice Department spokesman who desputed Emerson's testimony.before Congress that federal counter-terroriism officials once told Emerson of an assassination plot against him and suggested he might be eligible for a witness protection program. Sugg also quoted two Associated Press reporters who described Emerson's apparent attempt to pass off his own work as a secret FBI document. Emerson sued one of those reporters as well.
Emerson claimed the column hurt his reputation, but Sugg, The Planet and the AP reporter stood by their stories.
Emerson and his lawyers maneuvered to prolong the case even as they dodged the newspaper attempts to force Emerson to back his claim.
Finally, in February, Circuit Judge James D. Arnold ordered Emerson to comply with the newspaper's demand for more information. That order was on appeal, but this week another hearing was scheduled that could have forced Emerson to divulge information about his personal and professional life. The hearing also could have resulted in Emerson being declared a public figure, limiting his ability to use libel suits to intimidate reporters, Snyder said.
Neither Emerson nor his lawyers would return phone calls for comment, but on the eve of Monday's hearing, they voluntarily withdrew the suit. Snyder said the complaint is now too old to be revived. The AP reporter was previously dismissed from the suit, although that decision remains on appeal.
Sugg, now a senior editor for the Planet's sister paper in Atlanta, Creative Loafing, said he still has doubts about Emerson despite the obvious threats of domestic terrorism. "There are excellent sources on terrorism,' Sugg said, listing law enforcement and a number of respectable journalists. "But you have to wonder about a guy pursues a lawsuit for four years and when he finally has to put up a little proof of his charges-runs away. I would wonder if that proof ever existed."
Because of the harassing nature of the suit, Eason said he's asking the court to make Emerson to pay the defendants' legal costs. Snyder estimated his recoverable costs in the Tamps case "in the neighborhood of $200,000." But the paper and the insurance company have spent more than twice that fighting Emerson in various legal venues.
Not all newspapers would have been willing or able to defend themselves against attacks such as Emerson's, but that was why the Planet had to, Eason said.
"Emerson and his true believers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to silence us. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in defense of a newspaper's right to publish the truth.
It has a small fraction of the Daily Planet's credibility.
Weekly Planet fires 3 in shift from politics
The newspaper will continue to cover wine, film and music but will depend more upon freelance writers.
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 16, 2003
TAMPA -- The Weekly Planet, the spunky alternative paper that forged a reputation as a gadfly, has fired its three staff members assigned to scrutinize politicians and sweetheart deals.
By eliminating the positions, the move effectively guts the paper's news section. A handful of editors and critics will continue to cover beats such as wine, film and music. News editor Francis X. Gilpin and staff writers Trevor Aaronson and Rochelle Renford were told to find new jobs within a few weeks.
Neil Skene, senior vice president, group publisher, said the changes will allow the paper to develop a broader range of stories by hiring more freelance writers. He said he wants fewer stories about politics and more about "culture, broadly defined."
Equally important, he said, the decision will save money after a year of flat advertising revenue.
"The current staff (had a) political news orientation, and this seemed like a way to add more voices and . . . have some benefits on the cost side at the same time," Skene said. "I'm really trying to reorient the paper and keep making it livelier and interesting."
The redirection came as bad news to some.
"It's a sad day," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Jan Platt.
"I have not always agreed with them, but they've always made me think," Platt said. "So now the Weekly Planet will become nothing more than an advertising vehicle, period, because that's what it was: news and ads."
The Weekly Planet was founded as Creative Loafing in 1988 by Ben Eason, whose family owned a weekly paper in Atlanta that it still publishes, along with papers in Charlotte and Raleigh, N.C.
Most free weekly newspapers were started in the 1970s with an anti-establishment bent. Over the years, that tone has changed somewhat as baby boomers have grown up and taken their places among the establishment, Eason said.
The average age of readers of weekly papers has risen to 46 from 38 in 1995, according to the Media Audit, forcing papers to consider how to recapture a younger audience.
Eason said the cuts reflect that the paper is grappling with its focus after the promotion two years ago of editor John Sugg to head the company's Atlanta weekly. No one has been able to recapture Sugg's bare-knuckled approach to politics, Eason said, and perhaps that shouldn't be the goal.
Skene said the Planet still intends to publish hard-hitting news stories but will now rely on contract workers to write them. The firings were not meant as criticism of the work by the staff, he said.
Any de-emphasis of news coverage is unfortunate, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Frank.
"I think it's going to be a real hole there," she said. "They were really candid about their views, and I think it's important to say the emperor has no clothes from time to time."
Skene said circulation for the paper, which is free, stands at approximately 95,000. The Planet prints between 80 and 100 pages an issue, he said.
Gilpin said he was "sad for the paper and sad for my colleagues that are losing their jobs but, you know, that's journalism and business, I guess."
Exposing jihad within our borders March 21, 2002 By Steve Emerson
How Steve Emerson lives with death threat from militant Muslims
The police taught me some techniques about living underground. Stay away from the windows. Vary your routine. The important thing is not to leave the house at the same time or take the same route to and from the office every day. When driving a car, make sure no one is following you. Do a quick U-turn every once in a while just to make sure. I did that many times.
"Be careful when you jog," they said. That was a big problem. I love to jog. It's my only opportunity to get outdoors and get my mind off things for a while. But jogging through Rock Creek Park at night promised maximum exposure. Now I had to develop a hundred different ways of leaving my apartment and winding through different streets in inconspicuous clothing in order to maintain my daily exercise. If I didn't, my health and sanity would probably collapse. It was trying and unnerving.
Along the way I had to decide whether this was all worth it. Did I really want to live this way? Couldn't I just move on to another subject and be just as effective as an investigator and reporter? I weighed the idea for a long time. But there was a stubborn resistance in me. I didn't like the idea of being intimidated. I'd be giving up an extremely good story. I honestly believed this was an important concern for everyone in the nation. I could see the momentum toward domestic terror building. I decided to go on.
One incident that severely affected the course of my reporting was the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995. That ended up being an albatross around my neck. Less than six hours after the bombing I was asked on television whether I thought militant Islamic groups were involved. There was good reason for thinking they might be. The bombing, after all, was in Oklahoma City, where I had first encountered such militant groups in 1992. Several Hamas operatives were known to be living in the Oklahoma City area. At first, federal law enforcement officials were suspicious themselves.
When asked on a news program, I responded that "federal law enforcement officials" were investigating the possibility that militant Islamic groups were involved. This was true. I also said that "this [was] done with the attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible" and that "this is not the same type of bomb that has been traditionally used by other terrorist groups in the United States other than the Islamic militant ones." All this was interpreted as my saying point-blank that militant Muslim groups were involved.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the American Muslim Council (AMC), and other organizations immediately took offense. Then when Timothy McVeigh was arrested and it turned out domestic terrorists were responsible, Muslim groups claimed they were the real victims. "Surge in hate crimes against Muslims," was the story on the front page of The New York Times based, I believe, entirely on unsubstantiated information fed to them by CAIR. The Boston Globe, The New York Times, ABC-TV, National Public Radio even news outlets that had themselves originally reported that Muslims were among the suspects now took the position that I was the only one who had suggested this. I became persona non grata in many places, including at CBS, which had hired me less than 24 hours after the bombing to be a consultant. They ended up blacklisting me for five years. Dan Rather contended, "It was Emerson who misled us."
Still, the news media didn't give up the story themselves. At one point Newsweek called up and said, "We'll give you $10,000 to help write our cover story." They were looking for a militant Muslim connection. "Save your money," I told them. "They didn't do it." As soon as the details of the McVeigh arrest emerged, it was obvious that he was responsible and had probably acted nearly alone. Up to that point I had suspected that Islamic radicals were involved. Now I realized I was wrong. I've never wavered from that since then, and I have refused to support the conspiracy theorists who insist that McVeigh himself was actually involved with Muslim groups. But to this day I regret my hasty comments.
Meanwhile, I continued to discover more information at The Investigative Project. People in law enforcement would regularly come to me with new data, records and documents. The most disturbing were the calls I would get from federal law enforcement agents who had information and wanted to follow up but were being prevented by their superiors who weren't interested in these things. More and more, these disgruntled agents turned to us with information that they weren't allowed to pursue themselves.
Our operations became more sophisticated and far-reaching. One of the unexplored mountains of evidence we inherited, for example, was the trial exhibits from the first World Trade Center bombing. Included were the records of thousands of phone calls made by the suspects to the Middle East and other parts of the world. We knew the individuals who were placing the calls, but we couldn't tell who had received them. Yet it was obvious that this was the key to investigating how far the network of international terrorism had extended.
We divided the list of calls up country by country. Then, we engaged a number of Arabic speakers and started making cold calls. Every night at midnight when the tolls were low and it was daylight on the other side of the world we would begin dialing numbers in the Middle East. When someone picked up we would engage him in random, nondescript conversation. "How are you? How are things going? I'm calling from the U.S. Do you want to know what's happening here?" One way or another we tried to get them to talk to us.
More than 49 out of 50 calls would be a dead end. The person answering would hang up or wouldn't have any idea of what we were talking about. But that one in 50 proved to be a treasure trove of information. At one point we ended up talking to the son of blind Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the infamous Jersey City imam who plotted a day of terror for Manhattan. Another time we reached the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Little by little it became obvious that all these groups were coordinating their effort in a worldwide network.
Then one day the phone rang, and we hit an absolute gold mine. The caller was a brave Sudanese who was a member of the Republican Brotherhood, a group opposed to Dr. Hassan al-Turabi's fundamentalist regime in Sudan. He was now working as a plumber in Brooklyn. He was in the basement of a building and had just come across scores of boxes of old records that appeared to be the property of Alkhifa Refugee Center, also known as the Office of Services for the Mujahedin, the predecessor to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida international network. The records had apparently been moved there after the World Trade Center bombing from Alkhifa headquarters at the Al-Farooq Mosque on Atlantic Avenue. He wondered if we would be interested.
We immediately contacted the FBI in New York and Washington. To our utter amazement, they said they couldn't do anything about it. The field agents were very interested but when they ran it up to their superiors, they were told it wouldn't fly. We even smuggled out a few pages to pique their interest but the superiors would not budge. Then we got word that the documents were about to be moved or perhaps even destroyed in about five days.
So we decided to pull off our own covert operation. Our Sudanese contact went into the building at midnight to do his job carrying several large toolboxes. He then immediately emptied the toolboxes and filled them with documents. We met him at the rear of the building in a rented van. We grabbed the toolboxes, each containing about 4,0005,000 documents, and raced off to a Kinko's in Manhattan where we spent all night feverishly photocopying the material. Then we would race back to the building by 6 a.m. and return them to the plumber so he could put them back before the building owners showed up for work. We did this for three straight nights.
The papers contained financial records, address books, information about the fabrication of passports and countless other materials showing the Alkhifa Refugee Center's involvement in the worldwide jihad movement. When we returned to the building the fourth night, however, our contact didn't show up. We waited and waited, but by 7 a.m. we were very fearful that something had happened to him. We left and found out later that something had triggered the building owners' suspicion and they had caught him. While we were waiting outside, he was being questioned and threatened in the basement. He is a tough guy, however, and somehow got out of it. We ended up keeping the original records instead of copies. Altogether, we only retrieved about one-quarter of the information that was there, but it was great material. We got thousands of leads. Nevertheless, I still think it would have been much better had the FBI come in.
Although I continue to live at an undisclosed location, I occasionally speak at universities and other public forums. The universities usually provide some form of security, but there are never metal detectors. I'm always looking out for somebody who goes quickly into his jacket. One time at Ramapo Community College in New Jersey, a group of Muslim protesters rushed the stage. For a brief moment I thought I was finished, but the police restored order. Another time I was speaking at Harvard Law School at a memorial for a 20-year-old Brandeis University student, Alisa Flatow, who had been killed in Israel in a car bombing carried out by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The audience turned out to be 80 percent Muslim. No matter how many times I condemned the Jewish Defense League and Christian terrorists, they continued to bombard me with accusations that I was a racist and anti-Muslim.
Up until that point I had thought militancy was a mind-set of impoverished and ill-educated people whose fervor was driven by their lack of opportunity in life. But this was an audience of privileged young people future doctors and lawyers and still they openly supported Hamas. This brought home to me that Islamic fundamentalism is a trans-class movement. Poverty and lack of opportunity have little or nothing to do with it. The real proof of militant Islam's trans-class appeal can be seen in the support for the Islamic Fundamentalism among the unions representing doctors, lawyers and scientists in Islamic countries and in the support for bin Laden in such wealthy countries as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
Even at my Feb. 24, 1998, testimony before a congressional subcommittee on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombing, I had a police escort to and from the hearing room. It was jarring to think that I needed police protection right in the halls of the Senate. Afterward the police escorted me to my car, but that was the end of it. They said goodbye and left me on my own.
Less than a year ago, I participated in a seminar at a public agency in Washington where we spent time trying to imagine the worst possible terrorist calamity that could occur in the United States. Two basic scenarios were presented. One individual suggested that the Chinese would launch a nuclear attack using ballistic missiles. Everybody thought that scenario was the most likely. My suggestion was that we would be hit by a much lower-grade attack by Islamic fundamentalists on American soil. Moreover, I said, our response would be constrained because we would not want to offend the sensibilities of Islamic fundamentalist leaders and their groups. They were already establishing a demographic base in both the United States and Europe and would argue strenuously against any kind of effective response.
Unanimously, the other participants responded, "This could never happen." First, they said, fundamentalists would never attack us here. Second, they knew that the U.S. would respond so horrifically if such an event did occur that we would wipe them off the face of the earth. Finally, they said, fundamentalists had no real motive to pull anything like this off.
These were very smart people, dedicated public servants. They had no axes to grind. They weren't arguing the case for one group or another but were sincerely trying to evaluate America's situation as far as international terrorism was concerned. Yet I walked out of that meeting and e-mailed a friend, "We're doomed. It is beyond the official imagination of this government to conceive that we can be attacked. There is an underlying assumption that we are such good people that nobody would ever want to attack us here." There was nothing venal in their attitude. It just meant our defenses were down. We were turning a blind eye toward the many possibilities for terrorist attack and the militants' infrastructure already in place to help coordinate it. I wanted to grab those people by the lapels and shout, "Don't you see how far this thing has gone already? Don't you realize there are people in this country who hate America and everything it stands for and have absolutely no fear or compunction about doing something about it?"
Since Sept. 11, 2001, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. The only difference between Feb. 26, 1993, and Sept. 11, 2001, is that there are 3,500-odd more people dead. We are still vulnerable. We have only a short time to prevent the next chapter from unfolding. This is the most important battle of our time. Today we still have a window of opportunity to prevent further devastation. But the window won't be open for long.
OKLAHOMA BOMBING LINKED TO BIN LADEN
Soon after the fall of Kabul, journalists discovered two houses in an upscale neighborhood, one bearing the seal of the Taliban and the Ministry of Defense, where a lot of interesting documents, papers and notebooks had been left behind when the Taliban made their hasty departure. On November 17, the New York Times ran a big page-one story by David Rhode on the revelations found in these documents about Al Qaedas activities and plans for future terrorist operations, including weapons they were thinking of using. There were references to chemical and biological weapons and even developing nuclear weapons. A page listing flight training schools in Florida torn out of a magazine and a form that comes with the Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 program that simulates flying airliners provided additional evidence linking Osama bin Laden to the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Times followed up with a story the next day that focused mainly on the notes and drawings of one unnamed individual who had described some proposed new weapons that a reporter for the London Sunday Times had described as "unnerving for the layman." The New York Times story by Rhode and James Glanz countered that opinion with evidence provided by scientists that the grandiose weapons for which this individual had drawn up plans were totally impractical.
"But," the Times said, "chemical formulas written by him and by another man, a Bosnian, who left notes behind at the Taliban Defense Ministry in the same quarter of Kabul, show clearly that they knew how to make crude explosives. In an apparent reference to the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, one chemical formula at the Defense Ministry is annotated in Bosnian, Was used in Oklahoma." This had been described toward the end of Rhodes story the previous day a little differently. Discussing the house that bore the Taliban and Ministry of Defense seals, Rhode had written, "Upstairs, a room labeled special office, had been mostly emptied, but numerous papers remained in desk drawers. Most of them were notebooks from students. One gave a detailed description of various ways to make nitroglycerin, dynamite and fertilizer bombs. A note next to one of the explosive formulas said, the type used in Oklahoma."
That was the biggest news in the story if the formula was not ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, the ANFO bomb that Timothy McVeigh is supposed to have used to blow up the Murrah Building. "Supposed to have used" has to be said because there is a lot of evidence that an ANFO bomb alone could not have caused all the damage done to the Murrah Building and that smaller powerful bombs inside the building caused much, if not most, of it. Since the ANFO that the FBI says was in the Ryder truck failed to demolish a low concrete wall between it and the building, or knock down a nearby lamp post, it could not have destroyed the more distant reinforced concrete building.
The inspector general of the Justice Department said in his report on the FBI Crime Laboratory that the FBI analysis of the Oklahoma City case "merits special censure" because conclusions about an ANFO bomb were "incomplete," "inappropriate," "flawed," and nonscientific.
If Al Qaeda knew more than the FBI about the formula for the bombs used in Oklahoma City, that would show that it was involved in the bombing. The New York Times failed to acknowledge this, perhaps because its story did not make it crystal clear that the notation, "the type used in Oklahoma," meant that in Oklahoma, bombs made of nitroglycerin, dynamite and ammonium nitrate (a fertilizer), not just ANFO, were used.
A London Sunday Times story featured the information about the Oklahoma bomb and made it clear that the formula was not ANFO. It said, "On one page, under the title Explosivija za Oklahomu, the owner of the notebook had scribbled formulas with inscriptions in English for TNT, ammonium nitrate and nitroglycerine. The Oklahoma bomb was made from ammonium nitrate and fuel oil."
That made it clear that there was a difference, but the story didnt discuss its signifi-cancethe revelation that more sophisticated bombs were used in Oklahoma City and bin Laden knew it. This suggests that the Murrah Building was his second attack on a U.S. building. Many people saw swarthy John Does with McVeigh and Nichols. It is believed that they are shown on surveillance tapes the FBI seized. The Kabul discovery should force the release of those tapes and a revival of the search for the John Does.