Presented with a transcript of his remarks at a 2004 conference, Rashad Hussain, President Obama's nominee to be special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, issued a statement Friday evening acknowledging having criticized the U.S. government's case against Sami Al-Arian, who pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiracy to aid Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Originally, the White House claimed that Hussain denied having made the comments, attributing them instead to Al-Arian's daughter, Laila.
But Politico's Josh Gerstein obtained an audiotape of the remarks, in which Hussain said that Al-Arian’s case was one of many “politically motivated persecutions."
Hussain called the prosecution of Al-Arian "truly a sad commentary on our legal system. It is a travesty of justice, not just from the perspective of the allegations that are made against Dr. Al-Arian. 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."
On Friday evening, Hussain admitted having made the comments and the White House backed off its insistence that Hussain hadn't made the comments, though both noted that he did so in the context of disagreeing with the way the government pursued the case against Al-Arian, making clear not to address the specific criminal charges.
“As a law student six years ago, I spoke on the topic of civil liberties on a panel during which I responded to comments made about the al-Arian case by Laila al-Arian who was visibly saddened by charges against her father," Hussain said in a statement. "I made clear at the time that I was not commenting on the allegations themselves. The judicial process has now concluded, and I have full faith in its outcome.”
Hussain, currently in the White House counsel's office, said, "I made statements on that panel that I now recognize were ill-conceived or not well-formulated.”
The controversy was all the more confusing because the remarks were reported in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs in 2004, but the editor, Delinda Hanley, later removed the comments from the Web site, though she didn't recall why.
The then-intern who reported Hussain's comments, Shereen Kandil, who currently also works for the Obama administration, stood by the remarks.
Now we know at least part of the story as to why the comments were removed: Hussain called the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs to protest.
“When I saw the article that attributed comments to me without context, leaving a misimpression, I contacted the publication to raise concerns about it," he said in his statement. "Eventually, of their own accord, they modified the article.”
Hussain wrote a paper in 2008 for Brookings in which he suggested that the U.S. government use Islam to win "hearts and minds" in the war against terrorism.