Media

Tonight on 60 Minutes: Terrorist Chicken Laundering

A program segment highlighting alleged terrorist connections of poultry farms in Georgia was based on shoddy reporting and flawed sources.
Beware, if you visit Gainesville, Ga., of the terrorist chickens, alleged feathered friends of Osama bin Laden operating out of training camps (OK, deep fryers) near the shores of Lake Lanier. So says CBS News' "60 Minutes."

The "60 Minutes" scenario, according to a breathless source on the respected TV news magazine, is that maybe 10 million chickens are recruited each year to become, um, martyrs for al-Qaeda. The loopy-sounding theory (although stated as fact) is that chickens disappear from a poultry farm's ledger books, and quicker than you can say "secret seasonings," the proceeds are funneled to terrorist groups.

The venerable news program touts as its hallmark an abundance of diligent research. But not apparently on the chicken/terrorism story. No proof in any form is offered that even one chicken was "laundered," much less that millions were, as the network's source alleges.

Lawsuits filed this month in Atlanta and Washington claim much was amiss with CBS's fact-checking -- mainly that the network didn't check facts before it claimed several Muslim groups based in Herndon, Va., had terrorist ties.

For a start, the litigation contends, correspondent Bob Simon never bothered to ask Mar-Jac Poultry of Gainesville -- whose investors include some individuals connected to the Virginia groups -- about its squadrons of alleged terrorist-tinged fowls. Instead, Simon relied on a woman called "Anonymous" who, in her lurid book dubbed "Terrorist Hunter," boasts: "Mata Hari had nothing on me."

With the media flagellating itself over credibility problems following the Jayson Blair meltdown at The New York Times, the use of anonymous sources is risky territory. Readers and viewers suspect that accounts from such sources are often embellished.

So, you'd think "60 Minutes" would be a tad wary of a woman who perceives herself as a femme fatale -- and who unabashedly boasts that she's an invaluable asset to right-thinking federal agents and a bane to bumbling G-men.

In the "60 Minutes" report, Anonymous -- later identified as a self-appointed spy named Rita Katz -- points to a chart that purportedly shows the flow of dollars from the Virginia outfits to Osama bin Laden. Mar-Jac Poultry, a pillar of Gainesville business since 1948, is named on the chart.

"Chicken is one of the things that no one can really track down," Katz says to CBS' Simon. "If you say in one year that you lost 10 million chickens, no one can prove it. They just died. You can't trace money with chickens."

The organizations were searched by customs agents last year. But, Katz claims to be the international super spy (0.007?) who donned a burkha and penetrated Muslim groups -- the Virginia raids were her handiwork. (No charges have been filed, and Mar-Jac's lawyers say they've been told their client isn't a target.)

"CBS News aided and abetted a disguised and anonymous character assassin's hit-and-run tactics," says Nancy Luque, a Washington lawyer for the Muslim groups. Luque is demanding $80 million for her clients in Washington. Her Atlanta colleague, former federal prosecutor Wilmer "Buddy" Parker, seeks an unspecified amount that's certain to be in the millions.

Despite the penchant of CBS' Simon for ambush interviews -- with the implied admission of guilt by those who won't talk -- he wouldn't respond to my written questions. A CBS spokesman assumed the litigation posture, claiming the network had committed no sin.

Katz, meanwhile, wouldn't answer specific questions about her evidence and where she gets her funding. She did huff: "The more aggressive your attack on us, the more everyone will realize what an excellent job we are doing."

Now you know how I felt, Ms. Katz. I just finished with a lawsuit with your mentor -- which I won.

Beginning in the early 1990s, there was a concerted effort by some supporters of Israel's right-wing Likud Party to silence Palestinian voices and undermine the peace process in the Middle East. Leading the pack was self-styled terrorism expert Steven Emerson. Katz was his "research director" until sometime last year when the two split.

Emerson has one word for Arabs and Muslims -- "terrorist." He made so many gaffes -- most memorable, his 1995 attempt on CBS to link the Oklahoma City bombing to Muslims -- he has been run out of many respectable newsrooms. His response was the smear job. When the Washington Post shunned him, he branded the paper "pro-Hamas." When the Miami Herald strafed Emerson's shoddy claims, he wrote the city's Jewish leaders claiming the paper's reporter "was nothing short of racist."

As The Nation reported in 1995: "Intellectual terrorism seems to be a part of Emerson's standard repertoire. So is his penchant for papering his critics with threatening lawyers' letters."

I was one of those papered.

In 1998, I wrote several articles focused on Palestinian academics at the University of South Florida. Emerson was the prime mover of allegations against the academics, via his own work and through a Tampa Tribune reporter he recruited.

Included in my reports were several disclosures that punctured Emerson's already damaged reputation:

-- He had told a congressional panel (and he would later write in his 2002 make-a-buck-off-9-11 book, "American Jihad") that a group of Islamic extremists had eluded law enforcement, and federal agents had warned Emerson that the terrorists intended to kill him. I sent the congressional statement to the Justice Department. Spokesman John Russell said the department's criminal division knew Emerson, but didn't know about a threat to his life.

(Later, after meeting with Emerson and his lawyers, Russell's boss wrote that someone in the FBI knew of a death threat and warned Emerson; that assertion was and remains hearsay. But Emerson's lawyers, in a court hearing, said an agent of State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, not the FBI, alerted Emerson to the threat. Neither Justice nor the FBI has ever vouched for the inflammatory details in Emerson's tale.)

-- Emerson in 1997 promised Associated Press high-level FBI documents, but never delivered, reporters Richard Cole and Fred Bayles told me. Emerson finally provided Cole and Bayles a paper with many portions blacked out. Cole and Bayles had obtained the same document -- without the deletions -- from Emerson's assistant. It became apparent to the reporters that the redacted portions were self-referencing phrases. "It was really his work," Cole told me. "He sold it to us trying to make it look like a really interesting FBI document."

My reporting outed Emerson's veracity problems to two key constituencies -- the federal government and the media. In 1999, he sued my paper (CL's sister in Tampa, the Weekly Planet), AP's Cole and me. That suit, because of repeated stalls by Emerson, dragged on for four years.

It would take 9-11 to resurrect Emerson, who now is a chattering head on MSNBC.

But Emerson lost his lawsuit. A judge ordered him to produce proof of his allegations. Last month, Emerson ran away.

We have to wonder if Emerson's proof ever existed. Not a single federal agent (and he claims to have many as pals) would come forward, take an oath, and say, "Emerson told the truth." Not a single document to bolster his version. No proof. Nada. Zilch.

Rita Katz parrots Emerson's old tales. They claimed victory after Palestinians were arrested earlier this year in Tampa -- although the basis for the indictments, recently revealed federal wiretaps, was not the "proof" long cited by Emerson and his allies.

Katz's book pretends to be a history. Strange history. For example, she misses by almost a full half-year the date when a notorious terrorist leader left the United States and returned to the Middle East. That error is an astounding one for an "expert."

The book appears to have two purposes -- to broadly link outspoken domestic Muslim and Arab groups with Osama bin Laden, and to undermine the FBI.

The first is easy to understand; it's basic agitprop, the Big Lie. Failure to understand the reality and nuances of Islam and the Arab street has fueled a turf war among government law enforcement agencies. Katz and Emerson are merchants of ignorance -- and they need gullible law enforcement agencies.

Katz's book slams the FBI and glorifies Customs -- with such elegant prose as "the jerks from the FBI." At issue was which agency would head a money-laundering operation known as Green Quest.

In May, the FBI won the fight, much to Katz's dismay.

A former high-level CIA counterterrorism official calls Katz's book "a joke."

"It is clear that the FBI thinks that Customs' investigation of [the Virginia Muslim groups] was being run by a bunch of amateurs," the official, Vince Cannistraro, told me, "and that perception played a part in Justice/FBI's play to take away terrorist financing investigations from Customs."

Cannistraro also said Customs was compromised in the Virginia (and chicken farm) attacks by a political agenda -- thanks to Katz, Emerson and company.

Katz depicts the FBI as venal and incompetent. That's not my assessment, and I've known many agents for years.

Of course, Katz relies on officials such as Immigration and Naturalization Service agent Dan Cadman -- who was nailed in the 1990s for deceiving a congressional task force and then covering up his deceits.

The FBI has had its share of blemishes, but that has a lot more to do with politics at the top than with the dedication of the grunt agents. I asked one of them, Tampa counterterrorism supervisor Jay Koerner, if he thought Katz had contributed much to investigations of terrorists. Koerner replied: "Hell, no."

So, you know what I think? I'll bet those chickens in north Georgia aren't terrorists after all.

John Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at [email protected].