Experts at Fear Mongering

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Date: 
November 16, 2010
Author: 
Wendell Belew, Belew Law Group

In a groundbreaking piece of journalism, the Nashville Tennessean ran a two-part series with the headline “Anti-Muslim crusaders make millions spreading fear.” The lead paragraph reads:

Steven Emerson has 3,390,000 reasons to fear Muslims. That’s how many dollars Emerson's for-profit company — Washington-based SAE Productions — collected in 2008 for researching alleged ties between American Muslims and overseas terrorism. The payment came from the Investigative Project on Terrorism Foundation, a nonprofit charity Emerson also founded, which solicits money by telling donors they're in imminent danger from Muslims.
 
Emerson is the most prominent of a growing cottage industry of “experts” who make a living spreading a lurid message of fear and menace from Muslims and Islam. He made a 40-minute speech at the 2009 AIPAC conference entitled “Tentacles of Terror: The Global Reach of Islamic Radicalism.  Writing in the Jewish Daily Forward about the speech, Matthew Duss said, “It could have just as easily been called, ‘Scaring the Living Crap Out of Bubbe and Zayde’.”

The Tennessean article sprang from its coverage over the controversy around the construction of an Islamic center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Opponents of the mosque included Emerson and Frank Gaffney, President of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), who testified against the mosque construction at a zoning hearing on the basis that mosque leaders had ties to terrorism. His main source of information for this assertion was a report on Shari’ah that he had written himself along with others. Under oath he admitted that he was not, actually, an expert on Shari’ah law.

The Tennessean article is also noteworthy in that it does not take at face value Emerson’s claim to be an “expert” on terrorism. While his days as on on-air consultant to CNN and others has ended due to concerns about his reliability and while newspapers and other main stream media outlets tend to avoid quoting him, Emerson is know to be quite litigious. Consequently the media has tended to place a discrete distance from him rather than to question his expertise directly.

Emerson has also developed an expertise for being a force behind the scenes in events. Newspapers that won’t quote him directly will use him as a primary source for stories. He plays a major role in criminal prosecutions. In the Sami Al-Arian case he was a major source of information and advice to the federal prosecutors and the Tampa Tribune. His close relationship to Gordon Kromberg, a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Virginia, is well known. The Holy Land Foundation prosecution relied on evidence produced by Emerson’s Investigative Project and two groups with ties to Emerson, the NEFA Foundation and the International Assessment & Strategy Center (IASC).

The relationships between Emerson and these two groups illustrate the collaboration and networking that goes on among the community of “experts” on Islam. Both NEFA and IASC are linked to the Counterterrorism Blog, which describes itself as “a unique, multi-expert blog dedicated to providing a one-stop gateway to the counterterrorism community.” Emerson and his Investigative Project are listed as the leading experts on the blog.  Douglas Farah is affiliated with both organizations and serves as the blog’s editor. NEFA’s Evan Kohlmann, a former Emerson employee, is a key expert on the blog. IASC’s Susan Schmidt and Glenn Simpson are former journalists from the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, respectively, who used Emerson as a source for their reporting. Similarly, Jeff Brienholt, whom IASC describes as “one of the nation’s leading prosecutors of terrorist financing” relied upon Emerson during his tenure at the Justice Department.

IASC’s President, Thor Ronay, is a director of the Counterterrorism Foundation, which publishes the Counterterrorism Blog. He also served as executive vice-president at Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy and is a board member of Family Security Matters, a project of CSP.

None of this suggests a vast right wing conspiracy. Much of the motivation for all these connections seems to be entrepreneurial networking. However, there do seem to be common perceptions – both factual and political – at play here. NEFA’s founder Michelle Hayes said about her group, “This is not work. Not to one of us. This is a cause.” The mindset of this group is not that of the academic dispassionately sifting evidence to identify alternative theories and reach reasonable conclusions but rather that of an advocate who uses evidence selectively to advance a pre-determined position.
Of course there is nothing wrong with advocacy. As a lawyer and lobbyist, advocacy is what I do for a living. But even in the rough and tumble of Washington, the system works fairly well because advocates for one interest are usually countered by proponents of different views.

With respect to Emerson and his colleagues, however, their views are too often represented as those of the disinterested expert rather than that of the advocate. And they have been successful in muting the perspectives of true experts like John Esposito and Noah Feldman and advocates of different perspectives such as CAIR. The problem is more that one of fairness. The almost exclusive reliance of the US government on Emerson and his ilk results in policy mistakes that harm American national interests.

The legendary Massachusetts congressman, Jamie Burke – a follower of “traditional” Boston politics – once remarked upon hearing a young colleague make a particularly eloquent, principled and rational speech on the House floor, “The trouble with that young fella is that he thinks this joint is on the level.” For too many years opinion leaders and government agencies have believe that Emerson and others are “on the level.” The reporting of the Tennessean and others is showing that this may not be the case. The national interest can only prosper from this development.