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Campaign Distortions in Texas Runoff

Henry Bonilla tries to link his opponent to "Islamic radicals."

December 8, 2006

Modified: December 8, 2006

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Summary

The election still isn't settled in Texas' 23rd congressional district, where voters are being asked to go back to the polls on Dec. 12 to decide a runoff between Republican incumbent Rep. Henry Bonilla and his Democratic opponent, former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez. Bonilla's latest ad features a former FBI agent telling viewers that Rodriguez sponsored a "a new law to free suspected terrorists," was behind a meeting of "Islamic radicals" at the US Capitol, and "took contributions from those radicals." The ad features a photograph of Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, who was convicted in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

We find this ad deceitful on several counts. The "new law" Rodriquez sponsored wasn't to "free terrorists." It was a bipartisan proposal to prevent the government from using classified intelligence information in certain immigration hearings. It was backed by the ACLU and some conservative Republicans alike, not just "Islamic radicals." The meeting in question wasn't "sponsored" by Rodriguez, though he may have reserved the room at the request of those who did sponsor it. And as for "contributions from those radicals," we found only a single donation of $250 that might fit that description.

Furthermore, there's also no evidence that Rodriguez knew the Blind Sheik or did anything on his behalf. The sheik would not have been freed by the legislation that Rodriguez co-sponsored, which would have applied only to immigration hearings and not to criminal trials. The ad is a misleading appeal to fear on the terrorism issue.

Analysis

The Blind Sheikh

Why does the blind Egyptian Muslim cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman appear in this ad? Probably because he's a terrorist figure that most viewers will recognize, convicted of seditious conspiracy after an investigation that grew out of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Bonilla's surrogate in this ad, retired FBI agent Al Ortiz, connects Abdel-Rahman to Rodriguez in a roundabout and misleading way. He says, "In 2000 a summit was held in the US Capitol where Islamic radicals called for his [the cleric's] release and a new law to free suspected terrorists."

In fact, the meeting was  a "Summit on Secret Evidence" in a House office building, the main thrust of which was to support a bill, HR 2010, to bar the use of secret evidence by the government in immigration hearings. It may be true that some attendees also called for the cleric's release. However, the group that 

 Bonilla "Ties"

Bonilla: I'm Henry Bonilla and I approve this message.
Ortiz: I'm Al Ortiz. For twenty-two years I tracked terrorists and criminals for the FBI. After the World Trade Center was first attacked by Sheik Abdel-Rahman he was convicted. In 2000 a summit was held in the U.S. Capitol where Islamic radicals called for his release and a new law to free suspected terrorists.
(On Screen: Image of Abdel-Rahman with words "Convicted Terrorist," "Free the Blind Sheik" and image of Capitol.)
Ortiz:
 All sponsored by Ciro Rodriguez, who took contributions from these radicals while pushing the law they wanted.
(On screen: Image of Rodriguez, words "Terrorist Law" and "Took Money")
Ortiz:
 I urge you, check the record. Judgment matters.

organized the meeting was the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, which traces its roots back to the McCarthy era, long before the rise of today's Islamic radicals.

The only support Bonilla's campaign gives for the claim that Rodriguez "sponsored" the meeting is  testimony in 2000 by Steven Emerson, a terrorism expert who told the House Judiciary Committee that Rodriguez had reserved  the room used for the gathering. Even if true, that shows nothing more than an effort to marshal support for the bill he was cosponsoring. 

Secret Evidence

The bill, the Secret Evidence Repeal Act, which Rodriguez co-sponsored as a member of the House in 1999, was of course not designed "to free suspected terrorists." The goal of the proposed legislation was to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow aliens in immigration hearings to see the evidence against them, even if that evidence is classified. It had support across a wide ideological spectrum: it was backed by the liberal American Civil Liberties Union and eventually gained 128 co-sponsors including Republican Reps. Bob Barr of Georgia and John Sununu of New Hampshire, both of them quite conservative.

Proponents of the bill argued at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2000 that secret evidence “in the form of classified information often consists of mere rumor and innuendo, inherently unverified and unverifiable.” Opponents of the legislation  argued that the changes were too broad, limiting INS official’s ability to use confidential information to deny potential security threats entrance into the United States. The FBI told the committee that secret evidence was in fact rarely used,claiming  that it was involved in only 11 out of 300,000 pending immigration cases.

The topic was a hot one in 2000, so much so that even Gov. George Bush took a stand in his presidential campaign -- against secret evidence. He raised it in his second debate with Vice President Al Gore that year, and in a written statement entitled "Governor George W. Bush's Record of Inclusion" he said:

Bush: On the issue of secret evidence – another creation of the Clinton/Gore Justice Department – I am also troubled by the disturbing stories of how this policy is being implemented. More and more, new immigrants, often Arab or Muslim immigrants, face deportation or even imprisonment based on evidence they've never seen and never been able to dispute. That's not the American way.

Newsweek reported that after Bush took office, the Justice Department prepared a plan to restrict the use of secret evidence. It was supposed to be presented by Bush to a group of Muslim leaders at a meeting in the White House scheduled for 2:00 p.m. on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, a meeting that never took place. After 9/11 the notion of limiting government's ability to use classified evidence slipped right off the "to-do" list.

However, it is not the case, as the ad suggests, that criminals like Abdel-Rahman, who were convicted in federal court, would have been freed by this measure. The only "suspected terrorists" who might have been released would have been those against whom no criminal charges could be brought, only immigration proceedings in which classified evidence was crucial to having an individual deported. Abdel-Rahman is serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison.

Tainted Contributions?

Ortiz tells viewers that Rodriguez also "took contributions from these radicals while pushing the law they wanted." We did find a single contribution of $250 from Abdurahman Alamoudi, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was convicted for his role in facilitating the financing of a Libyan-backed plot to assassinate the Saudi Crown Prince. However, he was  sentenced in 2004, and his contribution was given six years earlier in 1998. Alamoudi has also given  money to former Rep. Bob Ney, the Ohio Republican caught up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal; former Sen. Spencer Abraham, the Michigander who became Bush's energy secretary; and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bush himself, both of whom received their donations in 2000 and returned them later the same year.

The ad gets a couple of smaller points wrong as well: The summit meeting it refers to wasn't held in the Capitol, but in a House office building nearby, and the World Trade Center was not "attacked by Sheik Abdel-Rahman." The cleric was convicted as a result of an investigation of the 1993 bombing, but not for carrying it out.

Ortiz concludes by telling us, "I urge you, check the record. Judgment matters." Well, we did, and it's our judgment that this ad misrepresents the facts.

- by Viveca Novak, James Ficaro and Justin Bank

Sources

Jefferson, Greg and Joseph S. Stroud, "Bonilla hits Rodriguez on terrorism matters." San Antonio Express News, 5 December 2006.

Isikoff, Michael and Mark Hosenball, "Terror Watch: Friends in High Places." Newsweek, 12 May 2005.