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Did Rashad Hussain lie about his 2004 comments?

I have already weighed in on the case of Rashad Hussain, Obama's controversial new special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). I argued that the image of Hussain that has emerged in the public debate is exaggerated; the latest gross distortion of his beliefs is the Washington Examiner's proclamation (the top headline on page two of yesterday's paper): "Obama selects a voice of radical Islam." (This is not to say that all of Hussain's critics have been sensationalistic, but that has been a significant element of the debate over him.) I will not revisit the debate over Hussain's beliefs and loyalties at this time. Rather, I would like to explore something I see as far more significant: whether Hussain attempted to cover his tracks concerning comments he made about Sami al-Arian in 2004, and subsequently lied about it.

The story here is rather convoluted, but here are the basic facts. Hussain was quoted by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs as saying, while on a 2004 panel at a MSA conference in Chicago, that al-Arian was the victim of "politically motivated persecutions," and that the prosecution had been "used politically to squash dissent." At some point (most likely February 2009) these quotes were removed from WRMEA's web site; they were still on Lexis, however, and when they were discovered a controversy ensued. The two major areas of controversy were a) why the words were removed from WRMEA's web site, and b) whether in fact Hussain had said the words attributed to him. When asked about this, WRMEA editor Delinda Hanley said that she removed Hussain's quote because "the comments attributed to Hussain were actually made by Sami al-Arian's daughter." The author of the original article, Shereen Kandil, replied that she did not mis-attribute any quotes to Laila al-Arian:"If I quoted someone it's because they said it." Meanwhile, a White House press spokesmen told Fox News that at the panel, "Hussain went with plans to discuss civil rights in the wake of 9/11, but remembers the conversation turning to Sami al-Arian's case. According to the White House official, Hussain has 'no recollection' as to whether or not he made the comments attributed to him."

Then, on Friday, Josh Gerstein of Politico -- who has done top-notch reporting on this entire event, hard-hitting yet fair and objective -- confronted Hussain with a recording of the panel discussion, in which he did condemn the process of the al-Arian prosecution. As Fox News reports, Hussain issued a statement thereafter conceding that "his comments at the time were 'ill conceived or not well formulated.'" His statement said: "I made clear at the time that I was not commenting on the allegations themselves (against al-Arian). The judicial process has now concluded, and I have full faith in its outcome." He also admitted that he was the one who contacted WRMEA to ask that his quotes be removed.

On the surface, the facts may not look particularly good for Hussain: at first blush, one is naturally inclined to think that he tried to "cleanse" his record, lied about it when caught, and only conceded what had happened when confronted with a recording of his statements. For arguments that Hussain lied, see, for example, Jennifer Rubin's piece at Contentions.

I have rather pointedly not commented on the honesty issue thus far. In a Fox News Channel debate with Frank Gaffney, I refused to weigh in on whether Hussain was telling the truth (twice: here and here), and said that he should resign if he were lying. I likewise am quoted on Power Line taking the same line about his resignation. I refused to weigh in because I simply did not know the truth of the matter, but felt that the facts looked pretty bad. But I will now take a side: Rashad Hussain was not lying, full stop.

This will not be a politically popular position to take, and it is directly contrary to the conventional wisdom. In part this is because of how information moves and opinion solidifies in the age of the Internet. Two weeks ago, few people knew who Hussain was. Now an image has emerged of a terrorist sympathizer; Friday the news broke that Hussain had in fact spoken of al-Arian, and by Monday the opinion is clearly solidifying that he is a liar on top of being pro-terror. This is patently not the way opinion should form: we have had little time for reflection, little time to find the actual truth of the matter. I am certain that very few people who feel so strongly Hussain lied have actually examined all of the relevant quotes. So if you, as a reader, already think you know what the answer is with respect to Hussain's honesty, I ask you to carefully examine the facts (outlined below, but also see this Politico piece by Gerstein that represents the most comprehensive statement on the matter).

I have gone over Hussain's various statements in fairly minute detail. He was accused of saying two things: that al-Arian was the victim of "politically motivated persecutions," and that the al-Arian prosecution had been "used politically to squash dissent." The White House press office attributed the quotes to Laila al-Arian rather than Hussain, and claimed (as previously noted) that Hussain "went with plans to discuss civil rights in the wake of 9/11, but remembers the conversation turning to Sami al-Arian's case," and said he had "no recollection" as to whether he made the statements.

So was he caught red-handed by the tape? In a word, no. There were two quotations. He did not say one of them -- that the prosecution was "used politically to squash dissent" -- and the other quote is not quite right either. He said that the al-Arian prosecution fit into a "common pattern ... of politically-motivated prosecutions where you have huge Justice Department press conferences announcing that a certain person is a grave threat to American security." There is a difference between persecutions and prosecutions, of course. But it is worth noting that what he said about the al-Arian case was somewhat bold for the context in which he said it: at an MSA event directly following Laila al-Arian, who had given an impassioned speech about her father. Hussain made clear that he was not passing judgment on the allegations against al-Arian but commenting only on the process: "Without passing any comment on those specific allegations or the statements [that] have been made against him, the process that has been used has been atrocious." Undoubtedly, this will not be bold enough for most readers. He should not win a medal for this. But it is worth noting his attempt at balance.

The bottom line is that two quotes were attributed to Hussain, and there is no dispute that one of them (about squashing dissent) was completely mis-attributed. In the second three-word quote ("politically-motivated persecutions") the key word was misquoted: he actually said prosecutions rather than persecutions. So out of the eight words that Hussain was quoted as saying, he only actually said two, and he said them six years ago. It is thus inconceivable to me that on this basis we can say with any confidence that he was lying when he issued a statement that he had "no recollection" of making those statements. If anything, his very mild denial was understated: neither of the quotes was completely accurate.

Some people might argue that this is unnecessary hair-splitting; but keep in mind what the question at hand is. It is not whether there is a cognizable difference between persecutions and prosecutions: it is whether Hussain was lying when he denied that he remembered the words that were attributed to him. And to me, the fairest, most objective answer is that not only is it plausible that he had no recollection of making these statements, but it was far more likely that he did not.

Interestingly, potentially the most damaging thing Hussain has done is issue a statement on Friday explaining his decision to contact WRMEA to ask for removal of the quotes: "When I saw the article that attributed comments to me without context, leaving a misimpression, I contacted the publication to raise concerns about it. Eventually, of their own accord, they modified the article." But as IPT News points out: "So how does one contact a publication to complain about the context of remarks that one can't remember making? From the statements, it appears Hussain at best misled the public and his bosses in the White House." Indeed, it is of course impossible to know the context of a quote you cannot recall making. My take is that this was likely a hastily-constructed statement coming on the tail end of Hussain's grueling tour through the Middle East with Secretary Clinton, and little thought was given to the wording; knowing how White House press shops work, it would not surprise me if someone else had drafted the statement in the first instance. If Hussain had said the things attributed to him by WRMEA, perhaps the Friday statement would be damning when read in conjunction with them. But in the context of what Hussain actually said compared to the WRMEA quotes, and in the context of his rather mild denials, the Friday statement is anything but damning.

I waited quite a while to weigh in on whether Hussain was lying. And I'm glad I did, because when I carefully read through all the available information, it seems that the case that he clearly lied is the least sustainable. I hope that objective readers will likewise come to realize this.

CORRECTION, FEB. 23, 2010, 10:30 P.M.: In the above entry, I erroneously claimed that "there is no dispute" that one of the quotes attributed to Hussain (about squashing dissent) "was completely mis-attributed." I inadvertently overlooked the chance that the quotation in question was said during a portion of the panel for which there was no recording. As Politico notes, the recording that it obtained "cuts off before any question-and-answer period."

This caveat aside, the point remains the same: we know that Hussain said two of the eight words attributed to him. For failing to remember that he spoke those two words six years ago, he is now being definitively branded a liar.

READER COMMENTS: "Did Rashad Hussain lie about his 2004 comments?"

Posted by ESM at February 24, 2010 4:23 PM ET:

This has got to be the most detailed defense of lying I have ever seen that is utterly frivolous. At least when Bill Clinton claimed that he was never "alone" in a hotel with Paula Jones, or when he challenged the meaning of the word "is," his rationalizations were only one sentence long.

Posted by Anji at February 26, 2010 1:03 AM ET:

excellent, incisive analysis and article. thank you for providing a voice of reason to the unfair allegations being lodged against Hussain.

it also seems to be lost on the right that none of the charges against sami al-arian resulted in a conviction.

given husain's credentials and reputation, it makes me whether could any muslim pass the republican test, or if by defintion a non-muslim must be appointed to represent us at the Islamic Conference.

Posted by Johnathan Higgins at February 26, 2010 3:48 PM ET:

There is only one problem which is that the audiotape of the conference reveals that Mr. Hussain indeed stated

 which I'll discuss a little bit later when I get to the section of my talk on politically-motivated persecutions" (time 0:52)

So I guess the who defense kinda falls apart.

I will be interested to see if there is a correction to this article or even if this comment appears. It will be a good test.

Posted by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross at February 26, 2010 4:49 PM ET:


The quote about "politically-motivated persecutions" does not refer to the al-Arian case. I perhaps could have made that clearer in this entry, but it is discussed at length here.