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The Would-Be Senator and the Terrorist By: Bill West
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 27, 2004

The Democratic Senatorial primary on August 31 in Florida is fast approaching. One of the candidates in that primary, former University of South Florida President Betty Castor, throughout her campaign has defended her handling of Professor Sami Al-Arian during the mid 1990s. Al-Arian, accused of being a leading supporter of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization while employed at USF, faces trial in January in Tampa on Federal terrorism charges. Castor has claimed repeatedly she did all she could about Al-Arian while president of USF.

Castor said she “suspended” him and that was the most she could have done under the circumstances. Castor’s statements during her campaign make it appear she had the security and safety of the campus at the forefront when she took action in the Al-Arian matter. Documents obtained under Florida public records law reveal otherwise.

Two key memos from USF related to the Al-Arian case reveal that he was not “suspended” at all, as claimed by Castor, but rather placed on administrative leave with full pay.  Suspension implies some form of disciplinary action.  It’s clear from these two documents that no disciplinary action whatsoever was taken against Al-Arian.


An April 23, 1996 memo from Dean Michael Kovac describes a meeting he had on April 21, 1996 with Al-Arian wherein he discussed the ongoing allegations and controversy surrounding Al-Arian.  Per the memo, the meeting was held after an earlier discussion among USF President Castor, Provost Michael Tighe, Castor assistant Noreen Segrest and Kovac.  At the end of the memo, Kovac stated, “I told Dr. Al-Arian that the second reason for our meeting was to let him know that he would get a notice from the Provost’s Office in a week or so notifying him that he would be on administrative leave (pending the outcome of the various investigations) this fall at full pay.  I suggested that this would be beneficial to him (give him time to prepare for the various investigations, etc.) and to the university…and I said that this was a standard procedure in these type (sic) of circumstances.  He nodded and said ‘okay’”


A May 2, 1996 memo from Provost and Executive Vice President Thomas Tighe to Al-Arian states, “Effective August 7, 1996, I am placing you on leave with pay pending outcome of the investigations which are currently underway.”  There is no mention of any “suspension” or any form of disciplinary action in either of these memos.  The Kovac memo even ends by saying, “The tone during the entire meeting was matter-of-fact and calm.”


It is clear from these internal USF documents that far from doing all she could, Castor merely accommodated Al-Arian by placing him on a full-pay administrative leave status so he could “prepare for the various investigations.”  Is this how Castor “worked with law enforcement” as she has claimed during her campaign, by freeing the primary suspect, at full taxpayer salary, to prepare for the case against him? 


Far from doing all she could in the Al-Arian affair, Betty Castor’s response was tepid at best and, in reality, served to brush the matter aside in an effort to avoid embarrassment, conflict and controversy for the university and her at the time.  The voters of Florida need to decide if this is the sort of Senator they really want.


Bill West is a retired INS Supervisory Special Agent who launched the criminal investigation in the Al-Arian case in late 1994.  He is now a consultant to the Washington-based Investigative Project on counter-terrorism matters and a freelance writer.     

Bill West is a retired INS/ICE Supervisory Special Agent who ran organized crime and national security investigations. He is now a counter-terrorism consultant and freelance writer.

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