The Murky Steve Emerson Surfaces in the Senate Race

If the recent history of New York Senate races is any guide, elections have a tendency to boil down to one oversimplification. In 1998, Senator Chuck Schumer won after it was revealed that incumbent Al D’Amato had called him a “putzhead” in a closed-door meeting. In 1992, Mr. D’Amato won re-election when Bob Abrams called him a “fascist.”

If Rick Lazio is elected to the Senate on Nov. 7 over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the interminable 2000 Senate race will have boiled down to a story published in the Daily News on Oct. 25. The story, an inevitable outgrowth of the New York State-cum-Middle East style of politics, revealed that Mrs. Clinton had accepted $51,000 from members of groups that oppose Israel.

Those who follow Middle Eastern affairs likely recognized a name cited in the Daily News account: Steven Emerson. Mr. Emerson, a Washington, D.C.-based researcher and freelance journalist, has made a career out of plotting the intricate networks that connect Arab organizations and link them to Islamic militants.

Mr. Emerson told Off the Record it was he who brought the story to the attention of the Daily News . Why? He cites a broader context, one he has written about for years: the mainstreaming of militant Islamic groups through political organization. “You have a mosaic here, which I have provided to the New York Daily News ,” Mr. Emerson said. “There was no grand plan or effort that this article was designed to sink her candidacy.”

The story may not sink the Clinton candidacy, but in the final days of the campaign, the issue is dominating coverage.

The News story said that Mrs. Clinton had raised $50,000 at a fund-raiser in Boston on June 13 hosted by the American Muslim Alliance, a pro-Palestinian organization. Further, the story reported that she had accepted a $1,000 contribution from a board member of the American Muslim Council, who once visited the White House and later said he went there and “defended what is called Hamas,” the Palestinian group which the State Department has branded a terrorist organization.

The day the story appeared, Mrs. Clinton announced at a press conference that she was returning the $51,000. The next day, the story was on the front page of The New York Times , and the New York Post picked up Mr. Lazio’s incendiary characterization of the contribution: “Blood Money.”

Mr. Emerson has had a long and controversial tenure as a counterterrorism expert. He produced a documentary for PBS entitled Jihad in America, which traced Middle Eastern terrorist groups into the United States. He also wrote a book, The Fall of Pan Am 103 , about the jet bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, as well as articles for The New Republic and the Wall Street Journal . In the process, he has generated criticism from Arab-American groups, some of which Mr. Emerson has written about.

His controversial moment, though, came in 1995 when, as a consultant for CBS News, he suggested that Islamic fundamentalists were responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. “Oklahoma City, I can tell you,” Mr. Emerson said the day of the bombing, “is probably considered one of the largest centers of Islamic radical activity outside the Middle East.” He added, “This was done with the attempt to inflict as many casualties as possible. That is a Middle Eastern trait.”

Mr. Emerson defended those remarks: “The information was correct at the time that it was stated, in the same way when one reports about an ongoing investigation, that’s what the prevalent belief was,” he said.

By the next day, however, reports surfaced that two white males having nothing to do with Middle Eastern politics were the suspects. Said one reporter: “I learned from Oklahoma City never to listen to the guy.”

The Clinton fund-raising story, however, constituted a big scoop. Certainly it is being touted that way by the News . Yet the tabloid doesn’t seem eager to be linked to Mr. Emerson. The original Daily News story noted: “Information about the White House visits and the Boston event, independently confirmed by the News , will appear in an article by Steven Emerson, a counterterrorism researcher.” And, of course, Mr. Emerson is claiming the story as his own.

Still, the Daily News spokesman refused to say whether Mr. Emerson was the person who initially made the paper aware of the story. “We do not disclose our confidential sources and reporting methodology,” said the spokesman, Ken Frydman, in a bizarre invocation of source confidentiality.

Unlike Mr. Frydman, Mr. Emerson thought it was pretty clear from the Oct. 25 story that he had tipped off the News. “I was cited, I received a mention in the article, and I am very happy about that,” Mr. Emerson said.

Mr. Emerson made extensive materials purporting to document extremist statements by American Muslim Alliance officials available to the Daily News , as well as to other journalists at Mrs. Clinton’s Oct. 25 press conference and later to Off the Record, but only two points were made in the original Daily News story.

The third paragraph of the story notes: “The alliance’s Web site features photos of a 12-year-old boy killed by Israeli troops in Gaza this month under the title ‘The Real Face of Israel.’” The photographs were widely published following the Oct. 30 shooting, and Israel was widely criticized.

The story also includes partial quotes from American Muslim Alliance president Agha Saeed saying a Palestinian state should be established, “first and foremost through peaceful means.” The Daily News then wrote, “But if that fails, he said, U.N. resolutions ‘say specifically they have the right to resist by armed force.’”

In a statement from the Muslim Alliance released on Oct. 27, the group said Mr. Saeed was referring to a 1976 United Nations General Assembly resolution that applied its standard re-affirmation of the right to self-determination through “all available means, including armed struggle.” Virtually identical language has been applied in U.N. resolutions to South Africa and Namibia as well as the Palestinians. However, some view this as a rationalization for terrorism.

The issue of the Clinton campaign raising money from Palestinian supporters is not entirely new. In May, Eli Lake, a reporter for the Forward , wrote that that month, Mrs. Clinton had attended fund-raisers for her campaign hosted by Hani Masri, who the Forward identified as “a close associate of [Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat,” and Rafat Mahmood, a Pakistani-American real estate developer. The two events raised $120,000 for Mrs. Clinton, according to the paper. “Other candidates supported by Mr. Mahmood or Mr. Masri,” Mr. Lake wrote, “either directly or through political action committees, include some of Israel’s most vocal critics in Congress, those such as Rep. Jim Moran, Rep. David Bonior and Rep. Tom Campbell.” The story was picked up by a handful of news publications, including the New York Post.

Earlier, reports had also circulated about White House events for American Muslims. In 1997, Mr. Emerson himself gave a speech in Canada in which he claimed that American Muslims with ties to extremist organizations were being hosted at the White House.

Despite this previous coverage, the Daily News account took off.

“When she returns $50,000 from Muslim donors in an election which has a high-profile Middle East component, that’s a good story,” said Dean Murphy, who covered the story for The Times .

It got a second wind with a phone-call campaign launched by the state Republican Party which, according to the Post , informed New Yorkers that Mrs. Clinton had accepted money from a group which “openly brags about its support for a Mideast terrorism group, the same kind of terrorism that killed our sailors” on the U.S.S. Cole .

Like the Republican callers, reporters repeatedly conflated two separate fundraising episodes, equating the $50,000 raised by members of the American Muslim Alliance with the $1,000 donation from the board member of the American Muslim Council. (No evidence has been published linking the Alliance to the more radical groups supported by the Council board member, Abdurahman Alamoudi.)

Yet Daily News political editor Michael Kramer wrote on Oct. 29: “Hillary’s in trouble with the Jews–again. This time it’s because she accepted $50,000 from a group of American Muslims sympathetic to Hamas, the anti-Israel terrorist organization.”

All objective reporting about the money and the contributors seemed to have stopped as soon as the Clinton campaign declared the money objectionable. But maybe that’s for the best. Said one veteran political reporter: “The time to have an intelligent dialogue on foreign policy is not in the final days of a New York Senate campaign. That time has passed.”

Gear editor and publisher and Penthouse heir Bob Guccione Jr. is breaking up with his No. 2, executive editor Jack Wright. Mr. Wright, who has been at the magazine for three years.

Mr. Wright said that he and Mr. Guccione had simply grown apart and characterized the split as mutual. “It was kind of an intense relationship, and I honestly think we just had enough of each other,” he said. “It’s like it’s his apartment, and I have to move.”

Mr. Wright said his departure from Gear is so amicable that he is staying on through the first week of December to close the February issue.

When Mr. Wright was brought on by Mr. Guccione in 1998 from The Daily Express in London, friends of Mr. Wright said it was with the understanding that Mr. Wright would get the editor-in-chief title soon enough. That never happened. Nonetheless, Mr. Guccione and Mr. Wright were said to get along smashingly. Recounted one Gear insider: “One story I heard is that Bob hired Jack while they were both in a Jacuzzi, stoned out of their minds, having just been serviced by a couple of hookers. It rings true.”

Actually, it isn’t. The truth, Mr. Wright said, was that he met with Mr. Guccione and was offered the job in New York. Of the other version, Mr. Wright said, “I wish it was true.”