June 29, 2005
On a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon nearly two decades ago, a handful of young Palestinians gathered at the Glendale Civic Auditorium to prepare for an evening fundraiser. The event – a night of ethnic food, folk dances and political speeches delivered in Arabic – would be attended by an estimated 1,200 men, women and children, most of them immigrants from the Middle East.
It had been promoted as a festival to celebrate the 18th anniversary of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist-oriented faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The underlying purpose, organizers said, was to generate donations for “the homeland,” in particular to provide medical care and schooling in Palestinian refugee camps.
“People,” the crowd would be reminded that night in the call for contributions, “the revolution will not continue, and the march to Palestine will not go on, with words alone.”
The preparations seemed fairly unremarkable. Posters were taped to walls. Palestinian magazines, including copies of a PFLP publication, Al Hadaf, were arranged on tables. A troupe of amateur dancers practiced a folk dance known as the dabka.
Before the rehearsal, one dancer removed the American flag from its standard on the stage and leaned it against a back wall in the wings. This did not pass unnoticed.
Earlier that day, FBI Special Agent Frank H. Knight had hidden himself inside an engineering booth outfitted with a window that overlooked the auditorium. He would remain at his post deep into the night, snapping rolls of pictures, recording snippets of the speeches and narrating what he saw into a tape recorder.
For three years Knight had been tracking a number of these Palestinians, suspecting they were agents of the PFLP, an organization with a mixed record of social good works, military operations and terrorist strikes. Unable to convince FBI headquarters that he had evidence of illegal activities, Knight had come to Glendale with a new plan.
He brought with him an agent from the Immigration and Naturalization Service: If he could not prosecute the Palestinians, perhaps he could have them deported.
Knight did not speak Arabic, and many of his conclusions about that Saturday, Feb. 15, 1986, would be based on intuition. He reported, for example, that the music, speeches and “general mood” all “sounded militaristic.” He thought it suspicious that some men in an opening procession were dressed in khaki shirts and camouflage trousers.
“This would not be a normal attire for obtaining cash for orphans,” Knight surmised. “It is one to get cash for guns.”
And although he could not read the posters, the agent noticed that some depicted people holding AK-47 assault rifles. This led him to conclude, three minutes into his narration, that “it is obvious that this fundraiser has nothing to do with building hospitals or schools. It is solely for raising money for terrorist activities.”
Finally, there was the business of the American flag. Not only had it been removed before the program, Knight would report, the banner was never returned to its standard. Years later, Knight was pressed in a deposition to explain why he considered this relevant.
Certainly moving a flag off the stage did not constitute a criminal act, did it?
“I’ve been to other events, and the American flag usually stays in the standard. With this group – the PFLP, they removed the American flag.. And it makes a statement.. ”
“What kind of statement?”
“An observation,” Knight responded. “They treat the flag the way they would
treat the enemy. And, so, it wouldn’t be a part of their event.”
The revolutionary rhetoric and perceived slights to the flag, the “martial”
music and posters, the khaki clothing – all of these in time would be presented as evidence of seditious inclinations, part of the government’s brief in a pioneering attempt to deport seven Palestinian men and the wife of one of them, a Kenyan.
The “L.A. 8,” they would be called.
This is the story of their case. It is a case that has rattled around the courts now, incredibly, for 18 years, and yet remains unresolved. It is also a case that foreshadowed what was to come for many Arab and Muslim immigrants in America years later, in the aftermath of terror.
Long before Sept. 11, 2001, and President Bush’s subsequent declaration of a “war on terror,” long before the Patriot Act and the proactive tactics it licensed, back in a time when the difficult question of how to root out potential terrorists without trampling on civil rights seemed more academic than immediate, there was the case of the L.A. 8.
Since January 1987, when the eight were arrested, the case has bounced from immigration court, through federal district courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court and back again, with side visits to individual immigration status hearings. Along the way, it tested legal questions that would loom large after Sept. 11.
Do foreign nationals enjoy the same free-speech protections as citizens? Can particular immigrant groups be singled out for removal to advance U.S. policy objectives? When does advocacy for a political cause – Palestinian statehood, say – lapse into material support for terrorists with similar goals but more sinister methods?
The government architects of the case point to it as providing a framework, years ahead of its time, for the strategy of seeking to identify and remove possible terrorists and their supporters in America before they can strike.
“Our job is to protect the American people against things that may happen in the future,” said William B. Odencrantz, who came to the L.A. 8 case early on as a supervising lawyer for what was then called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “We’re not concerned with convicting people after they blow up buildings. What we want to do is keep them from being in a situation where they can blow up a building in the first place.
“And so that’s the kind of story we’ve been trying to sell for 18 years with respect to this particular incident.”
Critics of the case view it, conversely, as an early model of an anti-terrorism strategy they regard as a campaign of stereotype and overreach. They argue that to place fundraising for Palestinian refugee camps – and, for that matter, dancing the dabka – on par with the dark works of international terrorists not only diverts government resources from the hunt for “real terrorists,” but undercuts basic constitutional protections.
For the accused, the case has kept them ensnared for nearly two decades. Released from detention while the litigation played out, they have built seemingly innocuous lives in Southern California, raising children, buying homes, starting businesses. Yet they have done so with a gnawing, daily awareness that their purchase on the landscape remains precarious, with the government unwavering in its determination to see them removed.
“At first,” recalled Maria Obeid, wife of one of the eight, “it was: ‘Can we have kids? Let’s not have kids because we don’t know what is going to happen. Let’s not buy a house, because something might happen. Let’s not get this job, because something might happen.’
“I mean, everything that you want to do is stopped. And it’s not just us, it’s everybody, and it’s psychological torture.”
The eight were never accused of plotting or committing any act of terrorism – or any crime, for that matter. As William H. Webster, FBI director at the time, testified before Congress not long after the case broke: “If these individuals had been United States citizens” – rather than green card holders and foreign students – “there would not have been a basis for an arrest.”
Rather, they were targeted for removal, technically a civil proceeding, on grounds that they allegedly had raised money for the PFLP. More specifically, the initial charges involved the eight’s efforts to distribute Al Hadaf, the PFLP magazine – a publication available in public libraries, on college campuses and even at the U.S. Library of Congress.
The government contended that the magazine linked the defendants to an organization advocating the “doctrines of world communism,” a deportable offense under a provision of the McCarran-Walter Act, which was conceived during the McCarthy era as a means to remove immigrants with Marxist leanings.
The charges against the L.A. 8 have been reworked at least three times since, reflecting changes in immigration and anti-terrorism laws, some of which were tailored to be applied retroactively to this case. For all of that, however, the matter is far from finished.
Two of the eight, Khader Musa Hamide and Michel Ibrahim Shehadeh, are scheduled for trial in immigration court next month, with the government seeking to deport them under a provision of the Patriot Act that forbids giving material support to terrorist organizations. The outcome of their trial could influence the fate of the others. Should the government prevail, it could in theory take the same tack against the rest of the L.A. 8.
The respondents, as defendants are called in immigration court, hope the trial will bring an end to the case – a hope tempered by experience.
“I think we are going to win, but now what is the price of winning?” asked Hamide, alleged leader of the eight and a father of three who now makes his living as a wholesaler of coffee beans. “It’s already been 18 years of hell and misery for all of us. Is it going to take another 18 years? I mean, we want to go on with our lives.”
Los Angeles in the early 1980s, the Los Angeles in which this case took root, was in the midst of transformation, on its way to becoming what boosters at the time liked to call a “world city.”
The agents of change, by and large, were immigrants.
Refugees were pouring in from seemingly every corner of the planet, from Soviet Armenia, Mexico and El Salvador, Cambodia and South Korea, from the Philippines, Thailand and Pakistan.
Many did not leave their political passions and causes behind in the old country. Palestinians were no exception. They followed closely the fighting then underway with Israeli troops in Lebanon. They kept themselves informed on the dismal conditions of the refugee camps.
“Back then,” Shehadeh recalled, “we were getting reports that people in the refugee camps were eating dogs and rats. They were so besieged. And the whole Palestinian community worldwide was energized to rebuild hospitals, start clinics, to help alleviate human suffering.”
One response, he said, was to raise money at events like the one held in Glendale. Various Palestinian organizations would sponsor them. Ayman Obeid, one of the eight and a performer at the event, said the gatherings served another purpose: giving displaced and homesick immigrants an opportunity to take comfort in like company.
When he looked out from the stage, Obeid said, “I did not see any terrorists. I saw families. They brought their kids. For them it was to see live music, dance. Their eyes were lit. They thought we were kind of the Boyz II Men group. Because we liked what we did, and they liked what they saw, and that was the extent of it.”
After the performances, he said, would come a pitch for donations, which he characterized this way: ” ‘And can we get some money to send to the needy?’ And that was it.”
As they look back now, some of the eight recall the early 1980s as a time for hope. They were young, outspoken advocates of the Palestinian cause, and sensed momentum in their drive to push American public opinion their way. They were engaged not only in fundraisers, but also in campus rallies, protests, leafleting, voter drives.
“We wanted to influence the U.S.,” Hamide said. “We wanted to be like the Jews of the United States. Do you know what I am saying? To work from within the system. That is why we demonstrated in the streets. We engaged every group that was willing to listen to us, whether it was on campuses, churches, community groups and political people.
“Anybody who was willing to listen to us, we went to them, with literature, with dialogue, with whatever it took. Books, you name it – with dance, with food, with anything we could. We wanted to bring out the truth.”
Those with opposing views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took notice of a heightened Palestinian profile across America. In 1983, a booklet published by the Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith reported, “Beginning in June with Israel’s military action against the PLO in Lebanon, a pro-Arab propaganda network, which had been growing steadily in the United States for many years, erupted in full force.”
At the same time, there were suspicions in Southern California that the Palestinian activists might be up to more than political propaganda. An investigative article in the now-defunct New West magazine asserted that Palestinians in Los Angeles had created “an operational base for international terrorism” and that the government was “doing little.”
In the article, an FBI supervisor complained about a lack of legal “tools” and said: “We can’t even start to investigate a terrorist group until we have solid information that they are planning, say, to bomb a building . not that they are talking about it. But that they have already bought the fuses and the wires and the electric clock.”
Enter Frank H. Knight, a tall, silver-haired agent who was to become an almost mythic, monster-like figure in the memories of the L.A. 8.
Knight, a Midwesterner, had joined the FBI in the late 1970s. He was well into his 30s, having served as an Army officer in Vietnam and a junior high school science teacher.
He was assigned to the Los Angeles office’s counter-terrorism detail in 1980 and picked up the trail of Hamide and the PFLP in 1983. Over the next four years, he would prove himself to be not only determined but also creative, developing theories about domestic terrorism and how to combat it that appear to have been years ahead of their time.
Now 61, retired from the FBI and living in San Diego, Knight declined to answer questions about the case because it remains open. With one exception, other prosecutors and investigators, through public affairs officers, took the same stance, as they have from the start.
The years of litigation, however, have churned up dozens of memos, teletypes and internal reports. Also, Knight was deposed for four days in 1996 by an L.A. 8 lawyer, and his testimony provides significant insights into his conception of the case.
For three years, Knight and fellow investigators tailed Hamide, a Burbank
busboy who had immigrated to the United States from Bethlehem, in the West Bank, on a Jordanian passport in 1971.
They followed him to the Go-Between Express Bar-Cafe in Silver Lake, where he was overheard saying something about “presentation of the cause” and “problems” as he pored over documents with two companions.
They followed him to a Carl’s Jr. in Glendale and caught more snippets of
conversation – “rent a building,” “progressive Republican” and “May Day.”
They staked out his Glendale apartment and watched him lug boxes of publications, including copies of Al Hadaf, from his car. An L.A. sheriff’s deputy happened to live in the same building and happened to notice the regular visits of several Arab males to Hamide’s apartment.
What prompted Knight’s initial interest in Hamide and the PFLP remains less than clear. There were mentions in early reports of tips from other FBI field offices, as well as a widespread effort before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics to check out anyone who might conceivably be connected to any terrorist plot against the Games.
After the arrests in 1987, Anti-Defamation League officials claimed that the investigation had been triggered by information developed by their organization. They would back away from this boast a few years later, however, in the wake of embarrassing disclosures that ADL operatives in several cities, including Los Angeles, had kept thousands of covert files on people they deemed worthy of extra vigilance. Indeed, ADL files on Hamide and Shehadeh did turn up.
As his investigation proceeded, Knight began to read up on Palestinian politics and, in particular, the PFLP. Founded in 1967, it had claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist acts, including political assassinations and the hijacking of jetliners. As it evolved and became part of the social fabric of the Palestinian territories, it also opened medical clinics and schools.
These good works did not impress Knight. Asked in his deposition about the day-care centers and kindergartens, he replied: “You engage in these activities for many reasons. One being humanitarian reasons. The other is as a recruitment vehicle. Gain the hearts and minds of the mother, and she’ll send her son to war.”
Knight believed it was impossible to be dedicated to the PFLP, with its Marxist dogma, and still be a law-abiding American resident. “The PFLP,” he declared in one report, “is interested in no less than the subjugation of the entire world under a communist regime, and not the mere establishment of a Palestinian state. PFLP people, by virtue of their creed, hate the United States and all the U.S. Constitution stands for.”
The members of the L.A. 8, not surprisingly, disagree with this stark view. Without admitting they were agents of the PFLP, those interviewed for this article did say there were aspects of the organization they found attractive.
The PFLP was secular, they said, and it promoted feminism. Its social programs were effective. It was staunch in its insistence on Palestinian statehood, and by the early 1980s its fighting wing seemed to be moving away from attacks on civilians and toward operations against military targets.
That they could hold these views and still claim not to support PFLP-sponsored terrorism, was something Knight could not accept: “To the committed PFLP member,” he asserted in one document, “pulling a trigger is no different than selling a subscription to Al Hadaf, and soliciting money for the cause is the same as killing Zionists. Every act has a political message. Every utterance carries a terrorist purpose.”
By 1984 the object of Knight’s investigation had become clear: to “neutralize” the PFLP in Southern California by removing Hamide. He described Hamide, who had studied marketing at the University of Oregon and had gained permanent-resident status, as “intelligent, aggressive, dedicated,” with “great leadership ability.” Taking him out of action, he wrote to his superiors, would “severely hinder the PFLP in L.A.”
Knight began to stake out fundraisers organized by Hamide, noting that he did little of the physical work but gave plenty of orders. The speeches at the events, Knight would later report after obtaining translations, were “all anti-peace, anti-United States peace settlement, anti-Jordanian peace settlement and anti-Israel.” One summary also mentioned “anti-Reagan” overtones. Still, it was a difficult criminal case to build.
Various Palestinian charity organizations were listed as the official sponsors of the fundraisers, and donation checks were made out to them. Knight, relying on what he said was a single confidential source, regarded this as a sham. In any event, the money raised at the Southern California events he staked out was never traced to find out exactly where it was spent.
Knight believed it made little difference if the funds were earmarked for benign works – donations to a PFLP kindergarten simply would free up money for PFLP AK-47s. “We know that the United States is a moneymaking apparatus for the PFLP from their captured documents,” Knight testified in his deposition. The group committed “lots of attacks on people, a lot of military attacks, as well. And it’s not free. It costs money. And money is fungible.”
In his view, even the dancers who performed at fundraisers were supporting PFLP terrorism.
“They put on a show for you,” Knight said of the dabka performers. “And it’s the whole ambience that’s generated in the thing that causes people to reach into their pockets and give money.”
There was, however, a problem with Knight’s theory.
His superiors in Washington were not buying it.
Three times he laid out the evidence he’d gathered and asked headquarters for permission to open an official investigation, a bureaucratic step paving the way for criminal prosecution. The responses were blunt.
“FBIHQ has again reviewed LA’s request,” one communique read, ” . and
determined that Hamide is associated with Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine (PFLP) principals and activities.
“The circumstances presented concerning his PFLP activities do not demonstrate preparation for terrorism, but rather, the exercise of his rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments. Therefore, LA’s request is again denied.”
An FBI agent in New York who shared Knight’s interest in the PFLP suggested he team up with immigration authorities. There was, the agent wrote Knight, a
significant upside to this then-novel approach: “INS deportation hearings are
not criminal trials, and the rules of evidence are less stringent, such as
hearsay, disclosure of sources, etc.”
Knight met with an attorney of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in
Los Angeles. He was briefed on the McCarran-Walter Act and the provision
dealing with the deportation of communists. He revisited the Marxist ideologies expressed in the PFLP magazines that Hamide and his associates distributed.
He also requested that an INS agent be loaned to his investigation. This was
done, although the INS supervisor who authorized the assignment later would say he had been left somewhat in the dark about what kind of case Knight was attempting to build.
“I don’t think we knew what the full deck of cards was,” former INS District
Director Ernest Gustafson recalled. “I’m not so sure we were completely in the
loop.” Nonetheless, the INS would authorize the arrests.
Knight informed the FBI of his plans: “This novel approach,” he wrote, “would
utilize information developed from FBI investigations with the INS deportation
laws.” He met in Washington with superiors and came away believing that the
U.S. attorney general supported the effort.
After the INS agent joined his investigation, Knight learned that Hamide was
about to be sent a letter of invitation to become a full-fledged U.S. citizen –
the final step in the immigration process. Acting on Knight’s information, the
INS withheld the invitation.
Shehadeh, too, was close to becoming a naturalized citizen when, on Jan. 26,
1987, two men and a woman, all dressed in gray, came to his Long Beach house.
They announced they were from the INS. As he opened the door, Shehadeh’s first, vaguely formed thought was that these immigration officers had come to welcome America’s newest citizen.
That they would do this at dawn, he recalls thinking, did seem strange.
As they remember it now, all these years later, the morning of the arrests
unfolds in a series of surreal, dream-like scenes. “I remember every detail,”
said Hamide. He remembers how the officers and agents burst into his Glendale apartment with guns drawn. They showed him a subpoena. He did not understand.
It seemed to indicate that they had come to seize magazines.
“So I gave them my magazines. That’s funny,” he recalled, without a trace of
mirth. “That is really very indicative of this case. They came in with a
subpoena for a magazine. No baseball bats, no guns, no whatever. Because they knew: I ain’t got none.”
Aiad Khaled Barakat recalls the knock on his door. He looked down from an
upstairs window and saw a lone Glendale police officer on his porch. There was
a problem, the officer explained. They needed to talk.
“The minute I turned the key to unlock the door,” Barakat said, “the door went like a bulldozer. They pushed it like 10 feet back and people came in, about 15 or 18. A lot of them.”
Shehadeh remembers the sweat that rolled down the chin of the agent who held him in a headlock. His 3-year-old son had burst into the front room, wailing, and another agent placed him on the couch. Shehadeh tried to wriggle free, wanting to comfort the boy. The agent tightened his grip.
“Don’t be stupid,” Shehadeh remembers him warning. “You don’t want your son to watch you get hurt.”
Shehadeh was told that he belonged to a terrorist organization and was under
arrest. They handcuffed him and led him outside. A police helicopter wheeled
low over the house, and that is when the thought clicked: He had witnessed this scene before.
“The raid on my house in Long Beach,” he said, “looked exactly like the raids
in the West Bank: early-morning raids, with helicopters and guns and police and uniforms. Taken away in a hazy dawn, you know. Except this was happening in America.”
Looking back now, what perplexes him the most was how calm he remained. He did not lose his temper. He did not lash out and demand to know what was going on.
It took him some time to sort out his emotional response.
“In the back of a Palestinian mind,” he explained, “somebody is always going to come and take you away at any time. A Palestinian expects this nonsense. We live with it.”
Amjad Obeid, Ayman’s brother, had just returned from Las Vegas, where he had eloped with his girlfriend, Maria Garcia. He was a Palestinian Muslim. She was a Mexican American Catholic. They had agreed to keep the marriage secret for a few months, to give them time to break the news gently to their parents.
Now Maria’s mother was on the telephone. She’d seen a Spanish-language newscast about Palestinian terrorists being arrested that morning. One of them looked like Maria’s friend Amjad. She would not be comforted to learn from her daughter that he was no longer just a friend. He was her new son-in-law, the suspected terrorist.
Placed in a patrol car, Amjad Obeid was puzzled. “I remember when I got in the car there was one individual that sat with me in the back, and he was just
showing me photos of me dancing at events. But I still didn’t make anything out of it – why would they? What’s going on, you know? And here is just a thick book of nothing but pictures of me dancing.”
Ayman Obeid, who was studying at Cal State Long Beach with his brother, was asleep in his underwear. He opened his eyes to the barrel of a gun. They allowed him to dress and then put him in a police car. Seated next to him was agent Knight, “a big, big, tall guy,” he said. “A tough guy. He was very tough. Intimidation was part of the plan: ‘We are the government, and you are nobody.’ ”
He said the agent warned him that if he didn’t cooperate, he’d be hauled off to a Middle East country known for its hostile treatment of Palestinian troublemakers, a country where they’d “love to have you for lunch.”
Knight scolded him: “You guys here on the visa. You say you came to study in our country, and you’re doing this to us? How dare you do this? You know, we can just flick you, and nobody will care about you.”
“Yes,” Obeid said, those were the agent’s “exact words.”
He raised a flattened hand, as if to swat at the table where he sat.
“Flick you, like a fly.”
They initially were kept in isolation cells and described ominously as national security threats. Trips to the federal courthouse in downtown L.A. were made in convoys of unmarked vans, driven at a pace that was, to these shackled terrorism suspects, truly terrifying.
“One hundred miles an hour,” Hamide recalled, “like they are transporting the biggest Mafia head in Italy to court: ‘You are going to kill us, man!’ And there was no reason for it. They knew that.. The whole thing was a put-on.”
That they were transported in shackles and not permitted to shave made them look more plausibly like international terrorists, even though the government eventually would acknowledge that they were not accused of any acts of terrorism.
Rather, they were to be deported for their ties to an “organization that causes to be written, circulated, distributed, published or displayed, written or printed matter advocating or teaching economic, international and governmental doctrines of world communism.”
Arab American leaders condemned the arrests as a “witch hunt” and “old-fashioned Arab bashing.” There were suggestions that the roundup represented a “crude response” by the Reagan administration to the taking of U.S. hostages in Beirut.
Another theory was that the government wanted a test case – in the event war broke out in the increasingly volatile Middle East – to establish a precedent for detaining large numbers of foreign nationals. Shortly after the arrests, a secret government document discussing just such a plan was leaked to the media.
The document, “Alien Terrorists and Undesirables: A Contingency Plan,” appeared to plot a legal course not unlike that being followed in the L.A. 8 case: In the instance of war, immigrants from the Middle East, not liable for criminal prosecution but considered undesirable, would be arrested for immigration violations and detained at a camp in Oakdale, La.
Government officials sought to downplay the document’s importance, saying it was merely a draft of a possible approach. Its airing, nonetheless, rallied support for the arrested Palestinians. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild, along with high-profile lawyers such as Leonard Weinglass, of Chicago Seven fame, came riding over the hill.
After 18 days in detention, the eight were led in chains into the courtroom of Immigration Judge Roy Daniel for a bond hearing. Outside, Irv Rubin, national leader of the militant Jewish Defense League, marched about with a placard: “Commie Dogs Beware.”
The government came into court with generic treatises on the PFLP, pictures of Palestinian men dancing and promises of more-persuasive secret evidence that, under orders from the U.S. attorney general, could be produced only in chambers, away from the respondents, their lawyers and the public.
The judge wondered aloud what the various PFLP atrocities described in the government literature had to do with these particular Palestinians. Had they hijacked airplanes? Had they plotted bus bombings? He refused to hear the secret evidence.
The government lawyer described the fundraisers and demonstrations. She also offered to share in chambers Knight’s classified FBI report on the PFLP.
“I’m going to ask you to do that in public,” Daniel said.
The government lawyer responded that, because of “national security” interests, she could not. Maybe she could approach the bench and whisper her secrets in the judge’s ear? He refused and ordered the eight released, some on their own recognizance, the rest after they posted nominal bail amounts.
They smiled, hugged one another, and were put back in chains for the drive to Terminal Island, where they would be freed. Outside the courthouse, their supporters danced the dabka.
Later, as he and the others were led out of the detention facility, Hamide glanced backward over his shoulder and spotted Knight, peering down from an overhead stairway.
Their eyes locked, he said, and in that moment Knight shot Hamide a look he has never forgotten. “It was like,” he said, ” ‘You bastards.’ Just a cold-blooded look of hatred.”
June 29, 2005