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Dana Rohrabacher's Troubling Friends

By Kenneth R. Timmerman

FrontPageMagazine.com | January 26, 2004

 

Top Jewish Republicans who have supported Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) for decades said in interviews that they have "serious concerns" with the California Republican's ties to radical Muslim groups and their foreign backers, and his outspoken efforts to champion their cause in Congress.

 

"Before 9-11, Dana's views seemed idiosyncratic," said Arnold Steinberg, a political consultant whose ties to Rohrabacher go back to Youth for Goldwater in 1964. "We rationalized that he wasn't fully informed or had a blind spot" to the Islamists, who were contributing to his re-election campaigns, hanging around his office, and sponsoring trips by Rohrabacher and his staff to the Arab Middle East.

 

Rohrabacher seemingly paid back those contributors by an "even-handed" approach toward the Israeli-Arab conflict, a key demand of influential Muslim backers. "Even-handed" is a code-word used by radical Muslim groups, such as the American Muslim Council (AMC) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), to signify support for the Palestinian cause, including Hamas, and angry condemnation of Israel as a terrorist state.

 

After 9-11, Rohrabacher's views and public actions took on a more sinister appearance, as radical Muslim groups began to count on him increasingly as support for their positions dwindled in Congress.

 

In a heated May 2, 2002 exchange with conservative talk show host Alan Keyes, for instance, Rohrabacher insisted that "[Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat are cut out of the same cloth" and claimed that "there's been acts of terrorism committed against the Palestinian people as well," statements that made Keyes audibly gasp.

 

When challenged, Rohrabacher claimed that targeting civilians "was standard operating procedure of the Israeli army for years of occupation," when in fact the Israelis have consistently sought to spare civilians even at the price of the lives of their own soldiers, as was the case during the April 2002 battle of Jenin. Challenged a second time by Keyes, who called his comments "outrageously objectionable," Rohrabacher reiterated his belief that "both sides have committed terrorism."

 

Rohrabacher was one of four Republicans and seventeen Democrats who voted no to a May 2, 2002 Congressional resolution (HR 392) that expressed support for Israel as it faced a wave of terrorist attacks that killed more than 600 civilians. The resolution, which radical American Muslim groups lobbied against unsuccessfully, also stated that "the United States and Israel are now engaged in a common struggle against terrorism."

 

Voting with Rohrabacher against the resolution were Democrats such as Cynthia McKinney, Jesse Jackson, Jr. (Ill), Barbara Lee (CA), Peter Defazio (Or), and Michigan Representatives John Conyers, David Bonior, and John Dingell, all of whom have taken campaign cash from donors who have publicly supported Hamas and other terrorist organizations. "Dana has allied himself with the anti-American left-wing thugs that we always opposed," said Steinberg.

 

Some of Rohbacher's Muslim donors are currently in federal prison awaiting trial on terrorism-related charges.

 

Steinberg is just one of a closely-knit group of Rohrbacher friends and supporters who have been trying over the past eighteen months to get the California libertarian to open himself up to other viewpoints. For years, these supporters - many of whom asked not to be cited by name for this article - have urged Rohrabacher to travel to Israel. When he complained that no one would sponsor the trip, they offered to pay his travel expenses, but again he refused.

 

"He was a journalist for years, he was in the White House, he was a member of congress since 1988," one donor said. "Somehow, he never went to Israel, despite trips all over the world, and especially to Arab countries." Rohrabacher finally traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of a three-day Congressional delegation in 2003.

 

"Dana has a very antagonist attitude toward Ariel Sharon," says long-time supporter Howard Klein, a member of the influential Lincoln Club of Orange county Republicans. "But it goes much deeper than that. He doesn't understand the strategic or moral imperatives in the U.S. alliance with Israel and the forces that want to drive Israel to extinction."

 

Rohrabacher refused to answer questions for this article, on the grounds that the publisher of Frontpagemag.com, David Horowitz, has been "actively involved in trying to recruit someone to run against him in the Republican primary," a spokesman said. But an aid who accompanied him on the trip to Israel insisted that Rohrabacher "spoke the same language" to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, infuriating them both.

 

"In Ramallah, he told [Palestinian security chief] Mohammad Dahlan that the Palestinians had to give up the right of return," the aid said, referring to a long-held PLO position that insists on including Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war in a final settlement by allowing them to return to the properties they abandoned more than fifty years ago. "In Israel, he told the Foreign Minister that Israel would have to give up the settlements."

 

Rohrabacher aids insisted that the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which regularly sponsors congressional fact-finding missions to Israel, never offered to take Rohrabacher along.

 

But an official at AIPAC's legislative affairs department gave a more nuanced account. "We've offered repeatedly to take Rohrabacher to Israel, but he always had a scheduling conflict." The one time Rohrabacher asked AIPAC to sponsor him was to make a trip during the Easter recess. "That happens to fall during the Jewish Passover, when nobody is around you can talk to," the AIPAC official said. "We don't do Israel trips over Passover."

 

"Dana thinks Israel is a rogue state," another supporter complained. "To our regret, he is turning into the Paul Findley of our times and has become a mouthpiece for extremist views." Former Illinois Congressman Findley has been lionized by radical Muslim groups for denouncing AIPAC lobbying efforts in Congress.

 

Shawn Steele, a recent chairman of the California Republican Party, counts himself as a long-time Rohrabacher supporter. "Dana is my best friend, and I'm deeply involved with his re-election campaign, but I have been unhappy with some of his utterances."

 

While he was serving as state Republican Party chairman, Steele proudly opened the Party to local Muslims. Recently, however, he ran afoul of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) when he told a "support the troops" rally sponsored by the University of Southern California chapter of College Republicans that the Muslim community "has a cancer growing within it, which hates Jews, hates freedom, and hates Western society."

 

Following that speech, Steele says he was barraged with hate mail from CAIR supporters, and was ultimately sued by a top CAIR official in California. The official's suit was dismissed by Orange County Superior Court last December.

 

Steele believes that Rohrabacher is "in the process of changing his views," and has been "dismayed with the lack of support for the U.S. mission in Iraq among his Muslim friends."

 

Foremost among those friends is Khaled Saffuri, a former government affairs director of the American Muslim Council who has coordinated contributions to Rohrabacher's re-election campaigns from Muslim donors, some of whom today are in federal prison on terrorism-related charges.

 

While at AMC, Saffuri worked under AMC Executive Director Abdulrahman Alamoudi, who was jailed last October on charges of illegally laundering money from the Libyan government. At a September 2000 rally in Lafayette Park in front of the White House, Alamoudi led followers in chanting their support for Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah, both of which are considered as international terrorist organizations by the U.S. government.

 

As AMC's chief Washington lobbyist from 1995-1998, Saffuri worked to organize AMC members and contributors into an effective political force. Besides $10,400 in direct contributions he made to Rohrabacher's re-election campaigns, he helped raise another $24,000 for in direct contributions to Rohrabacher's campaign war chest from AMC members and sympathizers, according to publicly-available Federal Election Commission records compiled for this article.

 

Born to Palestinian parents, Saffuri has made a career in Washington, DC of putting a moderate face onto radical Islamic causes while mixing with a Wahhabi-inspired network of donors who include Alamoudi and former University of South Florida teacher Sami Al-Arian, who was jailed on Feb. 20, 2003 for his alleged involvement in the leadership of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an outlawed terrorist group.

 

Even more disturbing are Saffuri's ties to Jamal Barzinji, the head of a group of Muslim charities that has been targeted by a joint U.S. government task force investigating terrorist-related fund-raising in the United States, revealed here for the first time.

 

The charities, which include the Safa Group, SAAR, and Barzinji's Marjac group of investment companies, are sometimes referred to by federal prosecutors as "555 Grove street," the address they shared in suburban Herndon, Virginia.

 

Organizations tied to Safa Group that were raided by the Greenquest task force on March 20, 2002 include the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY), and al-Haramain, all of which have been linked by prosecutors to al-Qaeda.

 

A lawyer representing the Safa Group, Nancy Luqué, insists that her clients have not been charged with any crime. But a previously-sealed affidavit that lays out the government's motives for the massive raid alleges that Barjinzi and the Safa Group companies were "suspected of providing material support to terrorists, money laundering, and tax evasion through the use of a variety of for-profit companies and ostensible charitable entities under their control, most of which are located at 555 Grove Street, Herndon, Virginia."

 

Saffuri collected contributions from Barjinzi and thirteen other individuals who listed their occupation as officers or employees of Safa Group companies for a political action committee he established in April 1993, known as National Muslims for a Better America (NMBA).

 

For the five years of its official existence, which overlapped Saffuri's stint as Government Affairs director for the AMC, NMBA shared offices with the AMC at 1212 New York Avenue, Suite 400. That was the same address listed by Abdulrahman Alamoudi in his contributions to NMBA.

 

Among the contributors to Saffuri's AMC-sponsored PAC:

 

¤ Hisham Al-Talib, who lists his employer alternately as the SAAR Foundation and Marjac Investment Group, the private company controlled by Barzinji.

 

¤ Muhammad Ashraf, "an officer and/or director of Safa Group companies including Sterling Investment Group, Sterling Charitable Gift Fund, and York Foundation," according to the government's affidavit. Ashraf's residence at 12528 Rock Ridge Road in Herndon was one of the locations searched during the March 2002 raid.

 

¤ Mohammad Jaglit, a SAAR Foundation director consided by federal investigators as a key figure in the terror-support networks whose residence was also raided. The affidavit cites Jaglit as "an active supporter of [Sami] Al-Arian and [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], both ideologically and financially," and notes that letters accompanying checks he sent Al-Arian from the SAAR Foundation instructed Al-Arian "not to disclose the contribution publicly or to the media."

 

¤ Yaquib Mirza, a Pakistani national considered to be the financial wizard of the Safa/SAAR network.

 

¤ Basheer Nafi, identified as the "US agent of [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] in the affidavit

 

¤ Iqbal Unus, a director of Safa Group companies "including Child Development Foundation," whose Herndon, Va residence was raided.

 

During the entire period the AMC's PAC operated, from 1993-1998, Saffuri was listed as its Treasurer. Altogether, he raised just over $28,000 for the AMC-sponsored PAC and distributed it to members of Congress including Rohrabacher and Democrats Cynthia McKinney, David Bonior, John Conyers, Bill Richardson, James Traficant, Peter Defazio, and Nick Rahall.

 

Saffuri dissolved NMBA in May 1998. Since leaving the AMC, he has severed public ties with his former friends and colleagues, joining forces instead with conservative activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

 

Together with Norquist, he established the Islamic Institute in 1998 with seed money provided in part by donors in Saudi Arabia and by the Government of Qatar.

 

During the 2000 election campaign, Saffuri became the head of Muslim Outreach for the Bush-Cheney campaign, and orchestrated a meeting between Governor George W. Bush and Al-Arian during a campaign stopover in south Florida.

 

Since then, Saffuri and Norquist have helped set up meetings in the Oval Office with the president for AMC and CAIR leaders. White House officials have acknowledged that Alamoudi attended at least one of these sessions with the president.

 

Saffuri and Norquist have also set up meetings for leaders of radical Muslim groups with FBI Director Robert Mueller and with Attorney General John Ashcroft, to urge the Bush administration to abandon the USA Patriot Act. Government records disclosed in affidavits supporting the arrests of Al-Arian and Alamoudi show that the Justice Department has long sought to dismantle alleged terrorist-support networks operating in the United States, but lacked the legal tools for successful prosecution until the USA Patriot Act became law in 2002.

 

Rohrabacher voted for the USA Patriot Act in its original form in 2002, but also voted for amendments putting restrictions of government investigative powers that passed Congress overwhelmingly last year.

 

Rohrabacher friends and colleagues believe that Norquist initially introduced Rohrabacher to Saffuri. They point to the Congressman's long-standing ties to Norquist, which go back at least as early as the mid-1980s, when they worked together to build support for anti-Communist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia and Nicaragua.

 

"Grover has led a lot of people astray in recent years," one Rohrabacher colleague said. "Saffuri would always call Dana's office whenever he was doing an event, just as any lobbyist would do. He was well-schooled by Grover on how to be a politician's buddy."

 

Rohrabacher friends and backers in California discounted the campaign contributions from radical Muslim groups and their supporters documented here - $34,450 over a ten year period - as insignificant. "Dana can't be bought," one long-time friend confided. "What you are seeing here is a commonality of interest, not someone who has been bought. Dana is a lazy fund-raiser who has gotten used to running in a safe district."

 

But Frank Gaffney, whose 11,000 word expose of Norquist's ties to radical Islamic groups was published by frontpagemag.com in December, believes the apparently small amounts of money contributed by Saffuri and the Safa Group donors to Rohrabacher is misleading. "We tend to underestimate how much influence $2,000 can buy you. It means you are a maximum-level donor, so you get on the guy's radar screen. I worry that Dana's poor judgment has given rise to openings to people who shouldn't have access to members of Congress," Gaffney said.

 

He was not the only source who warned of a "classic influence operation."

 

Key to understanding Rohrabacher's ties to radical Islamic groups and the causes they espouse are several trips Rohrabacher has made to Qatar, paid for by the Islamic Institute and the Government of Qatar, according to Rohrabacher's financial disclosure forms.

 

Coordinated in part with the Heritage Foundation, the conferences ostensibly focused on promoting free market economics in the Arab and Muslim world.

 

During the April 2001 trip, however &endash; just months before the 9-11 attacks - Rohrabacher met privately with Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil. Wakil on the fringes of the conference, which Norquist and Saffuri also attended.

 

Wakil reportedly asked Rohrabacher to lobby the Bush administration for an increase in foreign aid to Afghanistan, apparently in exchange for a Taliban pledge to allow U.S. oil company UNOCAL to build a pipeline to bring oil from land-locked Central Asia to Pakistan and India. The pipeline project, as well as political support for the Taliban, were earlier championed by the Clinton administration.

 

Secretary of State Madeline Albright met with top Taliban leaders during a visit to Pakistan in November 1997, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson went to Kabul in April 1998, just three months before Bin Laden operatives blew up U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 civilians.

 

According to an AFP account of the Rohrabacher-Taliban meeting, Saffuri told an Al Jazeera reporter that "The position of the Taliban was flexible on most of the issues and the Afghan delegation showed itself to be ready for dialogue."

 

The Taliban later announced in Kabul that it had rejected what it considered were unreasonable demands by the U.S. side. Rohrabacher's staff would not answer questions about the Taliban talks.

 

Norquist tried to downplay Rohrabacher's meeting with the Taliban when asked about it by liberal columnist Josh Michael. ""Dana ran into some guy who was a representative of the Afghan government, and since he [Rohrabacher] had worked in Afghanistan he sat down and talked to the guy.  They literally met in the hallway.  I just remembered Dana mentioning that he ran into these guys ... and he yelled at them about blowing up the Buddhist statues."

 

Rohrabacher's Democratic opponent in 2002, Gerry Schipske, tried to make a political issue of the meeting by accusing Rohrabacher of meeting "secretly" with the Taliban in violation of the Logan act, which prohibits private individuals from conducting foreign policy in the name of the United States.

 

But Rohrabacher never concealed the meeting, and indeed, told wire service reporters who were present in Doha at the time that he had discussed a "peace plan" with the Taliban.

 

Rohrabacher was quoted in the November/December 1996 issue of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, a pro-Muslim broadsheet, as calling the Taliban "devout traditionalists &endash; not terrorists or revolutionaries."

 

While Rohrabacher's judgment on the Taliban &endash; which he has since reversed &endash; coincided with the policies of the Clinton administration at the time, it also fit nicely with the views of the Qatari and Saudi governments, who along with Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates were the sole international supporters of the Taliban.

 

"Dana was more naïve and more loyal than he should have been" when he agreed to April 2001 meeting, a former colleague said. "He listened to Saffuri and he shouldn't have. Qatar is the influence-peddling center of the Middle East, and Dana fell right into the trap they set for him."

 

Kenneth Timmerman is author of Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War on America and a senior writer for Insight Magazine.

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