- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

These days, it’s common for political hopefuls to stretch their counterterrorism credentials to win votes. But for a lesson in how to botch the effort, consider Florida Democrat Betty Castor, who has imperiled her run for the Senate by straining to the limits of credulity the idea that she’s been tough on terrorists. The record shows that it just isn’t so, and her Republican opponent, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, is hammering her on it.

The controversy centers around how Mrs. Castor, as president of the University of South Florida in the 1990s, handled the cases of Sami al-Arian, now in federal custody awaiting trial in January as the alleged head of North American financing operations for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Ramadan Abdullah Shallah — who taught at USF in the mid-1990s and is today the head of the PIJ operating out of Damascus — among others.

What is certain is this: Alleged terrorists found safe harbor at the university on Mrs. Castor’s watch. When the allegations first emerged, she reacted with politically correct, see-no-evil statements suggesting disinterest about allegations of terrorist activity on her campus. Once the evidence became overwhelming, Mrs. Castor pled that her hands were tied by Florida law and that her only recourse was to place al-Arian on paid leave.

A federal affidavit and the Tampa Tribune’s investigative reporting showed that, as early as April 1995 and probably earlier, federal investigators had probable cause to suspect al-Arian and his associates of fronting for the PIJ. When the allegations came to light, Mrs. Castor failed to react in a decisive manner. In a memo obtained by the Washington Times that she authored in June 1995, Mrs. Castor told colleagues that she was “deeply concerned by implications that the University should ‘investigate’ entities or people and be the arbiter of what political, social or religious ideology is ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ ”

The issue wasn’t “ideology,” of course; it was terrorist violence. Later, when a preponderance of evidence emerged, Mrs. Castor placed al-Arian on paid leave, pledged to keep him there until the investigation was over and commissioned a private inquiry into the matter. But she reneged on the pledge, returning al-Arian to work in May 1998. As for the investigation, former Immigration and Naturalization Service Special Agent Bill West told the Washington Times this was a “limited inquiry at best.” Mr. West, a key player in the case, says Mrs. Castor could have used the statewide Department of Education Office of Inspector General to conduct the inquiry, which, if pursued, would have opened the door to authorize firing al-Arian.

So, how does all this add up to being tough on terrorism? “Every candidate talks about terrorism, but I’ve dealt with it firsthand,” Mrs. Castor told viewers in a recent political ad. That’s true; the problem is how. Mr. West isn’t buying Mrs. Castor’s line on terrorism. The same may also prove true of Florida’s electorate.

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