March 2, 2010
Tom Campbell, California Republican Senate candidate, is scrutinized on Israel and terrorism record
Republicans have a reputation for being indivisible on foreign policy, but February saw a minor meltdown in the California Republican primary campaign for U.S. Senate. Republican commentators across the country debated for weeks over the pro-Israel, anti-terrorism pedigree of one of their own, former Congressman Tom Campbell. Campbell faces former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and California Assemblyman Chuck DeVore in the June primary.
Conservative bloggers began in early February to question Campbell’s voting record during his time as a U.S. Congressman. Why did he vote against some economic aid packages to Israel in the 1990s? More seriously, why was he acquainted in 2000 with Sami Al-Arian, a man who later pled guilty to supporting the group Palestinian Islamic Jihad? Fiorina and Devore both issued statements condemning Campbell as unreliable and potentially dangerous on Israel issues.
On aid to Israel, Campbell argues that “a reasonable disagreement can arise over economic aid without implicating America’s commitment to the defense of Israel against an attack,” saying that he has always supported military assistance to Israel, and on that he has the support of David Frum, an ardent pro-Israel conservative. Frum wrote in his blog FrumForum on Feb. 22 that “[t]hese claims turn on a relatively small amount of money,” some of which was previously allocated for African countries in more dire need.
Campbell’s link to Al-Arian is more complex. Campbell took civil libertarian stances during the 1990s that have largely vanished from the Republican political scene post-9/11. For example, he staunchly argued that it is unconstitutional to use secret evidence in noncriminal immigration hearings. The practice gave a detainee two choices: to be deported to a country where he might be tortured, or to challenge his deportation. But because he would not be allowed to see the evidence against him, he could not defend himself and could be left in jail indefinitely.
Long before Al-Arian went to jail for supporting terror, he was a professor at the University of South Florida (USF) and a political activist with high-level contacts among American politicians. His brother-in-law, Mazen Al-Najjar, was imprisoned pending deportation based on secret evidence. Campbell took up the cause, visiting Al-Najjar in jail and introducing legislation critical of the government’s practice.
Campbell found himself on the side of Muslim-American civil rights groups. “The community that was most interested in this was the Muslim American community,” Campbell said in an interview last week, because 26 of the 28 people in jail under the secret evidence rule were Muslim. As a result of Campbell’s work, Al-Arian made campaign contributions totaling $1,300 to Campbell’s 2000 U.S. Senate run against Dianne Feinstein.
On May 23, 2000, Campbell testified before Congress in support of the “Secret Evidence Repeal Act,” mentioning Al-Najjar by name. Campbell shot down the government’s argument that barring secret evidence in immigration cases would lead to the release of terrorists, because the government would only need to forgo its use in immigration hearings. In his professorial style, Campbell compared the issue to other
Constitutional abuses: “Why not give [suspected terrorists] truth serum, as long as they are in jail? If, like me, your stomach revolts at that thought, it must be because something in this Constitution prevents it.” That fall, Campbell lost the Senate election and left public office.
About a year later, just a few weeks after 9/11, Al-Arian appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor,” where host Bill O’Reilly accused him and his associates of being under investigation for terrorist activities. Al-Arian denied it, but O’Reilly proclaimed, “If I was the CIA, I’d follow you wherever you went. I’d follow you 24 hours ... I’d go to Denny’s with you.” Several months after the show aired, Al-Arian was fired by USF.
Remembering Al-Arian’s contributions to his campaign, Campbell wrote a letter to the university on Al-Arian’s behalf. “A fellow law professor asked me as a matter of academic freedom to express concern about [Al-Arian],” Campbell told The Jewish Journal. Campbell says that although he knew Al-Arian was an activist with controversial views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he had no idea Al-Arian actually was under criminal investigation by the FBI.
In 2003, Al-Arian was arrested for supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad. After a lengthy trial in which the jury either acquitted or deadlocked on each charge, Al-Arian avoided a potential retrial by pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to support a terrorist organization. Wiretaps made public in the trial revealed Al-Arian discussing suicide bombings and other terrorist activities. “I would not have written that letter, even if it were an issue of academic freedom, because the comments [Al-Arian] made in telephone conversations were appalling,” Campbell said. In the end, Campbell says he learned one lesson: “If I’m asked to write a letter on behalf of a professor, I should find out all I can about him.”
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, says the Al-Arian connection raises a legitimate question. “If he’s offering a mea culpa, then I think that’s a signal to the Jewish community that he maybe would have done things differently,” Brooks said. “It’s up to the voters to decide whether to accept his change of heart or not.”
Since 9/11, Campbell’s position on secret evidence has changed, too. “I strongly favor keeping Guantanamo and keeping enemy combatants under a prisoner-of-war status until the war on terror is over, Campbell told The Journal. He says that he now would allow for the use of secret evidence and that enemy combatants and their supporters do not have Miranda rights or the right to confront the evidence against them.
The raising of Campbell’s past, though, also has a sharply political edge. Campbell’s connection to Al-Arian and his voting record on Israel are not news; both have been known for years. The resurgence of interest appears to have been sparked on Feb. 9, when conservative bloggers Jennifer Rubin, writing for the Contentions blog of Commentary Magazine, and Philip Klein, at The American Spectator, used a Fiorina campaign press release on sanctioning Iran as a point of comparison to Campbell’s positions on Israel. Then, on Feb. 17, that comparison was linked to the Al-Arian story, which soon migrated to the mainstream media.
“I don’t have an explanation why 10-year-old events are suddenly brought forward,” Campbell said. Interestingly, the controversy coincides with an accusation by Campbell that a Fiorina consultant called him an anti-Semite in a phone call to former California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson. The Fiorina aide, Marty Wilson, has strongly denied ever making that statement, but Campbell says the alleged incident caused him to wonder whether the Fiorina campaign also was involved in refocusing the blogosphere and media on Al-Arian. Requests for comment by The Journal from several of the blogs that raised the Al-Arian issue last month were not returned.
In the meantime, polls taken before this issue resurfaced put Campbell 11 to 13 points ahead of Fiorina and even farther ahead of DeVore, making him the best suited to take on Boxer in November — if Republicans can unite behind him.