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FBI Urged to Reopen Probe into 1985 Assassination of Arab-American Leader Alex Odeh in California

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The FBI and Justice Department are being urged to renew its investigation into one of the most shocking political murders in recent U.S. history. Twenty-eight years ago, on October 11, 1985, a prominent Palestinian-American leader named Alex Odeh was killed by a powerful pipe bomb planted at the Santa Ana, California, offices of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where Odeh worked as the group’s western regional director. The FBI quickly named the militant Jewish Defense League, or JDL, as a focus of its investigations. But decades later, no one has been questioned or indicted for Odeh’s murder. “Despite 28 years of knocking on the doors of justice, we have not found it yet. Alex was a very peaceful man,” says Albert Mokhiber, former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “He was known as an activist, in not just the Arab-American movement and Palestinian issues, but civil rights in general.” We also speak to attorney Abdeen Jabara, who helped found the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The FBI and Justice Department are being urged to renew its investigation into one of the most shocking political murders in recent U.S. history. Twenty-eight years ago this month, on October 11, 1985, a prominent Palestinian-American leader named Alex Odeh was killed by a powerful pipe bomb planted at the Santa Ana, California, offices of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, where Odeh worked as the group’s western regional director. Seven people were injured in the blast. The bombing made national news. These are some of the news clips featured in a recent online documentary.

NEWS ANCHOR: It’s an act of terror right here at home, in Orange County.

CBS REPORTER: Yes, that is the corner office of what used to be the headquarters, as you mentioned, of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the 1900 block of 17th Street in Santa Ana, suite number 208. That is all that is left of that suite.

PETER JENNINGS: Today the Santa Ana office of the committee was destroyed by a bomb. Odeh was killed, and seven other people were injured.

NEWS ANCHOR: And some fear international terrorism may be taking root here.

CBS REPORTER: The man who was killed by that blast, Alex Odeh, age 41, married, the father of three young daughters. The bomb was powerful enough to shatter glass in several other offices.

EYEWITNESS: Debris was everywhere. The wall was blown out. The windows were blown out. It looked like a combat zone.

CBS REPORTER: Today, at Western Medical Center, where Odeh died, his brother Sami told of numerous death threats received by his brother.

SAMI ODEH: I don’t have an idea who done it, but, as I said, in the past, he had received some threatening calls from people identifying themselves as JDL.

AMY GOODMAN: The FBI quickly named the militant JDL—that’s the Jewish Defense League—as a focus of its investigations in the murder of Alex Odeh. But 28 years later, no one has been questioned or indicted. Just hours before he was killed, Odeh appeared on Nightline debating a member of the JDL. Shortly after Odeh’s killing, JDL’s chair, Irv Rubin, said, quote, “I have no tears for Mr. Odeh. He got exactly what he deserved.” The JDL was linked to a wave of bombings in the United States in the ’80s and is now considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee recently joined with the NAACP and several prominent members of Congress to push for the FBI to do more to solve the case. Ben Jealous, the outgoing president of the NAACP, likened the Odeh case to that of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist killed in 1963 in Mississippi. It took 30 years to bring his assassin, Byron De La Beckwith of the Ku Klux Klan, to justice.

To talk more about the killing of Alex Odeh, we’re joined by three guests. Attorney Albert Mokhiber, former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, was legal director of the ADC when Alex was killed. Abdeen Jabara is with us in New York, civil rights attorney here. He helped found the ADC and was vice chair of the committee at the time. He was also involved in a groundbreaking court case in the '70s that forced the National Security Agency to acknowledge it had been spying on him since 1967. We'll talk more about that in a moment. And we’re staying with Democratic Congressmember John Conyers of Michigan, who is calling for an investigation.

Let’s begin with Albert Mokhiber. Take us back to October 11th, 1985, Albert. Tell us exactly what you understand happened.

ALBERT MOKHIBER: Well, Alex routinely opened the office door that day. Unfortunately, as you had mentioned, there was a very sophisticated tripwire bomb attached, and as he opened the door, was just blown to pieces. Unfortunately, despite 28 years of knocking on the doors of justice, we have not found it yet.

And Alex was a very peaceful man. He was known as an activist in not just the Arab-American movement and Palestinian issues, but civil rights, in general. So, whether it was South Africa, whether it was Native American issues, he was there. And, in fact, many Jewish-American organizations were engaged in various types of dialogue with Alex and supported us at the outset of this investigation. And we’re happy to see people like Jewish Voices for Peace continuing that with us.

But it was quite a shock. And we think, quite honestly, that was probably the reason why Alex was targeted, because he didn’t represent what the media or popular culture wanted to see out of Arabs. You know, he was a very refined guy who spoke very passionately, but very eloquently, on issues of common cause. He didn’t brandish a weapon. His MO was dialogue. And that elimination of Alex’s voice sent a shock throughout the community, and it was a very chilling effect. It took years for people to come back to the organization and to this whole issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about who Alex Odeh was, Albert.

ALBERT MOKHIBER: Well, Alex was a poet. He was a published poet. And he was—he was a father of three beautiful young girls, and his wife Norma was left a widow to raise these kids. And Alex, family was first and foremost for him. I mean, if you just look at the photos of him, he was happiest sitting at home with his family and friends. But he was also dedicated to his homeland. He came from a little town called Jifna, a Palestinian Christian town. His sister was a nun. And he was very dedicated to the principles of civil and human rights. So, he would take trips back home. And I remember on a number of occasions I would contact the State Department in advance to let them know he’s coming, to make sure he wasn’t hassled at the borders because of the work he had done with ADC. But despite all of that, despite the fact that he did everything according to the book, he was still targeted and eliminated in a very savage way.

This was one of the first acts of terrorism in the United States surrounding the Middle East crisis. And there were two other bombings that year of ADC offices. Prior to that, in August, our office was bombed, and two police officers were actually trying to defuse the bomb, and it blew up on camera, and they were both disabled. Fortunately, they survived, but it was a horrible situation. Then, of course, on October 11, 1985, Alex was assassinated. And then, back in—here in D.C., our headquarters, on November 29th, were also bombed. And that, I don’t think, was a coincidence: That was the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Nobody in any of those three bombings has ever been brought to justice. And this is why we’ve redoubled our efforts, in the memory of Alex and for his family and his three daughters. Nobody should have this case go for that long without any resolution. And like Medgar Evers, we’re hoping that eventually—and hopefully it won’t take 30 years; maybe we’ll get it done before that—that we will get a resolution. And I must say—and I am indebted to Congressman Conyers, because, from the outset, he has always stood with us steadfast in trying to seek justice in this case. And we’re very pleased to see that he’s still here in Congress and will be helping us yet again to try to bring a resolution to this case.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments made by the president of the ADC in Los Angeles at the time of Alex Odeh’s murder. This is David Habib.

DAVID HABIB: Alex Odeh was killed as an American in America, because we dare to speak what is, for some people, an unpopular truth—that Arabs are people, too; that Arab Americans are Americans, too; and that all Americans, all Americans, are entitled to all the rights and privileges of being an American. This reprehensible crime threatens the security of all Americans everywhere and must not go unsolved.

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly after the bombing, the associate deputy director of the FBI testified before Congress about the attack and the likely perpetrators. This is Oliver Revell.

OLIVER REVELL: At this point, we have insufficient credible evidence to bring charges, so these individuals remain as suspects. And, as such, they’re, of course, entitled to due process and have the same constitutional rights as anyone else, so we are unable to—for this body, to name these individuals or to even associate them with a particular group. We have characterized them as members of a Jewish extremist element.

AMY GOODMAN: That was testimony before Congress. Congressmember John Conyers, you were a congressman at the time. This was 20 years into your term in Congress. And now, more than—close to 30 years later, you are calling for an investigation once again. What happened then? Where was the investigation? And what will be different now?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, that’s going to turn in large part on how Eric Holder, the attorney general, wants to have his legacy viewed, as he prepares to leave the top position in the attorney general’s office. The fact of the matter is that this is an embarrassment. There’s—they haven’t even dismissed the witnesses or the suspects involved. And it’s like they just put this into a closet and locked the door.

And thanks to Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and others in the Progressive Caucus, in the Congressional Black Caucus, and other individuals, we’re saying we don’t want President Obama and the Department of Justice to leave this case as if it never happened. We want—we want a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, or I’ll hold a forum if I don’t get a hearing, but we’ve got to get into this. And I’m going to be working closely with Eric Holder, who I believe is sensitive to the position that’s being raised by many of us now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring in Abdeen Jabara. You were the vice chair of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee at the time. You were a close friend also of Alex Odeh. Talk about what the ADC was doing at the time.

ABDEEN JABARA: Well, the ADC was in the process of organizing Arab Americans around the country. They were engaged in setting up chapters and opening offices and trying to raise issues of import to that community. And at the head of those was the continuing problem of the oppression of the Palestinian people.

AMY GOODMAN: And Alex Odeh had come from the West Bank.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the pattern at the time, what was taking place. I want to go to a quote of the JDL. The day after Alex was murdered, Jewish Defense League Chair Irv Rubin brushed off the attack, saying, quote, “I’m certainly not going to lose any sleep over it.” Later, Rubin was harsher, saying, quote, “No Jew or American should shed one tear for the demise of Mr. Odeh … Regarding the death of Mr. Odeh, unfortunate as it may be, as they say, 'What goes around comes around,'” he said. In 2002, Rubin died in jail while awaiting trial on charges stemming from an attempt to blow up a mosque in California. Talk about the wave of terror in the United States at the time, Abdeen Jabara.

ABDEEN JABARA: Yes, I would like to talk about that, because this is part and parcel of a whole pattern and a history that occurred. You have to remember that the founder of the JDL, Meir Kahane, was an FBI informant in the 1950s. He used a pseudonym to infiltrate the John Birch Society, and he was a paid informant for the FBI. He did not start the JDL until 1968. And from that time on, if one had a rap sheet, you would see—and I printed this out from the Internet—over 20 pages of bombings, assaults, firebombings, killings, etc., that were occurring in the United States, because the JDL became the shock troops for those people that wanted to pressure the Soviet Union to release—give visas to Jewish members of Soviet—

AMY GOODMAN: Soviet Jews.

ABDEEN JABARA: —Soviet Jews to go to Israel. And that’s what—one of the principal things that the JDL was doing. This had a large political resonance, and the JDL got an enormous amount of support. They got a lot of money. They were able to fudge a lot of the criminal charges that were brought against them. Kahane was put on probation during holidays; he was released to go out and celebrate the holidays when he was in prison—things like that. So, you have to understand this in terms of that context.

Now, they turned their attention to Arab-American organizing in this country because they saw that as a threat. And they thought, “We will target some of the Arab-American organizations,” which the ADL was the largest and actually the most successful in trying to help organize Arab Americans. And they thought that we would fold if we were—if several of our members were killed or assaulted, and they—and that they would intimidate us from continuing this organizing effort. So that’s the—I think, the larger context in which this occurred.

As you know, Kahane ultimately moved to Israel, joined—started a political party, etc., and his people in Israel continued to do this. The gentleman who attacked the Moslems praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque was a member of his organization. He killed 27 or 28 people while they were praying. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Robert Manning of the JDL?

ABDEEN JABARA: Yes, I can talk about Robert Manning. Robert Manning, he’s currently in prison. His wife was finally extradited after a long extradition process, but she passed away. And Manning has never been questioned about this murder, to the best of our knowledge. We do know, however, that in 2006 another gentleman, whose name was [Earl] Krugel, did give names to the FBI about people who he said were involved in the assassination of Alex Odeh. And those people are living now in—not in Israel, but in Israel-occupied territory, in a settlement called Kiryat Arba. And, you know, since that time—

AMY GOODMAN: Kiryat Arba is right near Ramallah, right?

ABDEEN JABARA: Yes. And since that time, of course, Israel has negotiated an extradition treaty with the United States, and it makes anyone who’s a dual national—there’s a lot of hoops that they have to go through to gain extradition of someone from Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: The JDL did not only target Palestinians. I want to ask about the case of the Jewish impresario, performing arts promoter Sol Hurok. In 1972, a bomb was planted in Sol Hurok’s Manhattan office. It exploded, killing Iris Kones and injuring several others, including Hurok. Iris was his secretary. The bombing had been arranged by the JDL, which opposed U.S. tours of artists from the Soviet Union.

ABDEEN JABARA: Yes, yes. Like I said, they were—the JDL was the shock troops in the attempt to help put a lot of pressure on the Soviet Union to allow—and, of course, ultimately, that was—you know, the political side of that was the Jackson-Vanik amendment in Congress, where Senator Jackson from Washington state passed this legislation that would deny trade benefits to the Soviet Union if they did not allow free Jewish emigration out of the Soviet Union. Of course, this was very helpful to Israel, because they wanted to ingather the Jews. That’s their whole modus operandi, that—of course, that the Soviet Union had a large Jewish population, and they wanted to increase the Jewish population in Israel. And so, there’s a lot that was going on here in terms of the JDL and the people that were backing it. It is not merely just a small cult group that was operating. It got a great deal of support.

AMY GOODMAN: We have a lot more to talk about. We’re going to go to break and come back. The day of his assassination, Alex Odeh was scheduled to speak at Shabbat services at Congregation B’Nai Tzedek, a synagogue in Fountain Valley. I want to ask about why the investigation was dropped and what it means to reopen it now right now. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. We’re speaking with Albert Mokhiber and Abdeen Jabara, both formerly with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and with Congressmember John Conyers, one of the longest-serving congressmembers ever. He’s just celebrated nearly 50 years in Congress. He is calling for, along with Loretta Sanchez of the Orange County area, Congressmember Sanchez, a reopening of the investigation of the assassination of Alex Odeh. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Again, we’re talking about the FBI and Justice Department being urged to renew their investigation into one of the most shocking political murders in recent U.S. history. It is the assassination of Alex Odeh on October 11th, 1985, 28 years ago. Our guests are Congressmember John Conyers, who is calling for that investigation; Albert Mokhiber, former president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Alex Odeh was the western regional director. He opened the door of the offices in Orange County, and there was a pipe bomb there, and he was killed, others injured. We’re also joined by Abdeen Jabara, civil rights attorney who was vice chair of the ADC at the time, helped to found the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Albert Mokhiber, what was the Anti-Defamation League doing at the time?

ALBERT MOKHIBER: At the outset, we actually were emulating the ADL, thinking, “Well, this is a great organization. It’s fighting for civil rights for the Jewish community. We should take some lessons and learn from them and do the same for our own community.” Little did we know, though, unfortunately, at the same time, they were actually spying not just on the Arab-American community, but on other progressive Jews, on Native Americans, on African Americans, anybody involved in the Palestine issue, the South Africa issue. It was a whole laundry list of activists and peace groups that they were spying on. And later on, two lawsuits were brought against them, one involving ADC and some other organizations, the other by former Congressman Pete McCloskey up in the Bay Area.

And the troubling aspect of that case, besides the fact that they were spying on us and gathering information, infiltrating the organization—not that we had any security issues: The organization was and is still open to anybody. But they had infiltrators who came in under the guise of being members who were sympathetic to the issues of the Arab Americans, and actually were reporting back—they were taking down, for instance, license plate numbers of meetings that were taking place, and they had people planted inside the San Francisco Police Department who then ran the numbers. Things were a little bit less sophisticated back then; you don’t have the same computer technologies and Internet abilities. So they actually manually went through these records and created lists for the ADL as to who was at—who attended these meetings. Some of their infiltrators actually were acting as security for some of the organizations in the Bay Area, as well. So that was extremely disturbing to us, to find that out.

But Jeffrey Blankfort also wrote that allegedly one of their infiltrators had a map of Alex’s office and a key to that office. And we’ve raised this, time and time again, with law enforcement. Why was that the case? Has anybody looked into this? Was there any correlation, any connection? Very disturbing. Very disturbing for the entire community and something that we still have no answers for.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the role of Robert Friedman of The Village Voice in investigating the assassination of Alex Odeh?

ALBERT MOKHIBER: Robert was a great journalist, a very brave man. Like Congresswoman Sanchez and Congressman Conyers, was at the lead of this story. He literally wrote the book on the JDL and Meir Kahane, wrote scores of articles about Alex Odeh for The Village Voice and other sources, and laid out the case, basically. I think if the government just takes what Robert wrote alone, they would be far along in this investigation.

Of course, the Israelis have stopped every effort. Each time we would raise the issue with the State Department, we’d hear concerns that the Israelis, you know, don’t want to cooperate, that it would be also—sort of absurd, that it would be impugning on the integrity of the Palestinians — don’t want to cooperate, that it would be absurd that it would be intriguing on the integrity of the Palestinians. The Palestinians would be nothing but gleeful to have an investigation of this case. So, we’re not quite sure what role these people are actually playing.

But Robert’s work was extremely important. Unfortunately, he died rather young and under, I guess, a cloud. I don’t know exactly what the medical results were, but we didn’t find out for months afterwards, because he always kept changing his numbers out of fear for his security. So we would expect calls from him more than we would call to his office. But Robert really was the lead on all this investigative work.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, the outgoing president of the NAACP, has likened Alex Odeh to the murder of Medgar Evers, the civil rights activist killed in 1963 in Mississippi. It took 30 years to bring his assassin, Byron De La Beckwith of the Ku Klux Klan, to justice. Jealous said, in his recent article, quote, “Residue of discrimination gums up the wheels of justice in bringing cases to a close. It would be foolhardy to believe that police and prosecutors are all completely immune from the bias of discrimination that leads some people to believe that some lives are worth less than others.” Congressmember Conyers, if you could talk about that parallel and exactly where you go from here with this case?

REP. JOHN CONYERS: Well, the Medgar Evers comparison is, to me, quite valid, because we’ve just come out of the era where civil rights for African Americans, in terms of voting and their protections constitutionally, have had to be challenged at almost every juncture. Many cases had to be overturned. Many new laws had to be brought in. We’re still working with horrific voter-ID laws that actually limit, in many states, voter participation rather than making it easier to vote. And so, I think that we have to remember, back in those days, the Department of Justice and the FBI—it was just coming out of the J. Edgar Hoover era—there were lots of problems inside our Department of Justice and law enforcement generally.

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Arab-American Attorney Abdeen Jabara: I Was Spied on by the National Security Agency 40 Years Ago

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