Sunday, November 4, 2018

On Election Eve, My Best Friend, A US Marine and Lifelong Staunch Republican, Denounces Trump and Defends American Journalism


Reno (left) and The Stauff
Michael Christopher Stauffer and I have been best buddies since we roamed the halls of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa in the late 1970's. 

After high school, Mike joined the United States Marine Corps, where he was quickly shipped off to the Middle East while Iran held Americans hostage.  

Meanwhile, I headed to California to attend college.

Mike is a lifelong Republican. I’m a lifelong Democrat. Over the years, we've remained best of friends but we've had spirited debates over just about every issue you can name from war to welfare to healthcare.

But it has always remained civil and respectful between us. Mike and I know each other on levels that transcend political labels. We have a lot more in common than our political differences might suggest. 

Such as the kindness we both show not only to our family, friends and coworkers but to people we meet on the street, and the love we share for good music, sports, comedy, and so much more. 

No one makes me laugh harder than Mike, who I have affectionately referred to for the last 43 years as "The Stauff." And no one makes me think more about my own views. We challenge each other, positively. 

He's often said that no one makes him think more about his views or challenges him more than I do. But in the era of Donald Trump, our friendship has been challenged like never before. And what happened this week surprised me. 

Mike, who's defended Trump since he was elected, has finally seen and heard enough.

“Jamie, I will not be voting again for Trump in 2020,” Mike told me. "I want to share this for the sake of integrity. I have been vocal in my support of Trump on some issues and feel that on this one he is absolutely wrong.”

Mike, who noted that his opinion carries some weight amongst his circle of friends and professionals, noted that “these migrants are being protested as animals. It is simply wrong and is a falsehood. I want to speak up on this." 

On one level I was surprised to hear him say this. But when I gave it some more thought, I realized that this was right in line with Mike’s character. I know what he is made of.

"I would not vote for any of the current Democratic front-runners such as Booker, Harris or Warren,” he told me. "But I could definitely vote for someone like a Joe Manchin or Joe Biden. Regardless, I will not be voting for Trump."

Knowing I am a journalist, Mike also said that if I wanted to write a story about this, "I trust you and give you absolute unconditional freedom to write and communicate this how you see and think best."

In other words, he was giving me permission to tell the world what he had just told me. And in this divided, downright tribal era in which we live, that took courage.

Trump Fomenting Hatred

Mike Stauffer, Yankee Fan
Over the past few weeks , Mike said he has been reading in "very neutral media" sources about the migrant caravan of families from Central America that is making its way to the United States up through Mexico. 

He said he began to notice that, each day, the description of this caravan grew more threatening and inaccurate. 

Ultimately, Mike said, “The President fully embraced an ad that was in my opinion fomenting hatred and fear among Americans toward the people of Honduras."

Mike had turned off his Facebook account and stopped watching all cable news channels. 

Except for reading a couple relatively small written accounts, he said he was determined to come to his own conclusions regarding the migrants and immigration from south of the border in general.

"I came across a picture in which a young migrant mother was collapsed from weariness and sleeping on the dirt,” he said.

"Her two young children were close by her. I asked myself how bad it must be in her homeland that she would uproot and walk thousands of miles across sun scorched land to escape it. I heard Christ’s words ring clear and unmistakable in my heart: 'In all things do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.”

Mike looked at the mother’s despair and that’s what turned him against Trump for good.

"I knew beyond all doubt that if I were in her shoes, I would want to be welcomed and received in a better, safer land,” he said. "I then thought again about how the President has been describing an entire people as dangerous and a threat to us, when in reality it is probably an extremely minute percentage."

At that point, Mike said his faith could no longer align itself with the words coming from the Presidents mouth.

“The active duty troops I've talked to this week, most of them, say off the record that Trump is abusing his power as commander in chief for purely political purposes. No one considers these families as an actual threat,” Mike said. 

He also read this past week how the President has called the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution insane, and that also was too much to take.

"Calling for change to the Constitution through the orderly process of ratification is one thing,” he said. "Attacking any part of our Constitution as being ‘insane' as a sitting President is downright dangerous."

Mike has been a staunch defender of our Constitution his entire adult life. 

"To ignore such a remark simply because I am a Republican would, for me, be hypocritical,” he said.

Mike has justified some of Trump's words and deeds as President, he explained, because there are some of his policies he does agree with and he still has a strong aversion to some parts of the Democratic platform.

But he can no longer do so. 

"I will not be voting Democratic in the 2020 election, but I also will not be voting again for Donald Trump,” he said.

Questioning Your Tribe

Mike Stauffer, Marine
One of the lessons I believe we should take away from hard decisions like the one Mike made this week is that we all have corners of ourselves that we do not reveal for fear of being booted out of the tribes we join.

Historically, political scientists have attributed such rigid political loyalty to the way we are raised and by our experiences. 

More recent research suggests there may be a genetic component to why we cling so tightly to our views. 

Whatever the case, the truth is once we pick and join a "tribe," most of us permanently subscribe to the tenets of that tribe and find it very difficult to outwardly question it, no matter how disdainful it gets.

I suspect this behavior has everything to do with our most primal instinct for survival. Don't step out of the herd and risk the chance of getting eaten by a T-Rex.

I've never had any problem stepping out of the tribal line. I guess that's because, as oxymoronic as it sounds, I am a fervent centrist, a passionate moderate.

I have strong views and can argue with the best of them, but I don't follow any party or ideological lines. 

I am a liberal, but I have never been a knee-jerk liberal or a knee-jerk anything. I have always had some conservative views.

I believe, for example, that if they are physically able, welfare recipients should have to prove that they are looking for a job to continue receiving welfare.

I have also always been a staunch supporter of the military and our veterans, as anyone who has read my journalism over the last 30 years will attest.

And I am a capitalist who strongly believes that free-market competition is a good thing -- as long as it is kept in check by, yes, the government.

But I am, at the beginning, middle and end of the day, a proud liberal. I have been all my life, and it is because I care about the less fortunate. This is why I call myself a liberal. 

Mike, too, has always had a few left-leaning views, though he would probably never admit it.

Probably his most liberal position, he said, is that he supports a “robust Medicaid system and strong federal aid toward Medicaid."

And he is of course an unabashed supporter of expanding our military. But in 2005, during the Iraq War, he said against the wishes of his party and many of his fellow Marines that the war should end and that we should bring our troops home.

But make no mistake: Mike is a classic conservative. I guess you could say he is a conservative in the Reagan model and I am a progressive in the Joe Biden model. 

But the friendship between us is bigger than politics. It actually works in the way it is supposed to work in Congress. Our debates have always stayed civil, and we always manage to find common ground.

That is, until Trump was elected.

Since then, while Mike has generally stood by Trump, I have grown increasingly outraged with Trump’s lack of moral compass, his thousands of blatant lies, fog whistles to racists, unprecedented divisiveness, systematic destruction of the environment, destruction of our relationships with our allies, and just his profound corruption.

Knowing Right From Wrong

I take no credit for my best friend’s change of heart. And with all respect for his religious beliefs, which I believe is a positive aspect of his life, I don't personally credit Christ for this decision.

I credit Mike’s own sense of goodness. I credit his own deep understanding of the difference between right and wrong, which he knew even before he embraced Jesus. 

"Thank you for doing your job as a journalist through thick and thin,” Mike told me this afternoon in an email. 

It meant a lot to me in this era in which The President of the United States calls any journalist who does his job honestly and writes anything negative about him “fake news” and an “enemy of the people.”

I am undeniably pleased that my best friend recognizes that Trump's ugly, racist fear-mongering over the non-threatening caravan of Hispanic families seeking a better life, and Trump's preposterous take that American journalists are enemies of the people, are both unAmerican.

"I was very wrong and completely off base when I joined in piling on the media,” Mike said. "There are .001% agenda-driven wackos in any part of life. But 99.99% of journalists are doing the job we as a democracy need them to do.”

Unlike so many people these days on the right and the left, Mike has a rare ability to re-carve a personal political view that seemed cut so deeply in stone. 

He, like most of us, typically sees the world through a narrow political prism. But this week, to my amazement and his credit, his courage and common sense overcame his stubborn inner machinery and he adjusted his sights. Again.

He did it with the Iraq War 13 years ago, and he did it again this week with Trump. Which is not to say that he is suddenly a liberal. He isn't. I don't expect that nor do I want that. He sticks to his guns. Literally.

I also don't expect a bunch of people to read this story and suddenly change your position on Donald Trump. 

But one can hope.

There's no shame in changing one’s mind. There is, in fact, great honor and courage in doing so. My best friend did it. So can you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Did the Saudi Royals Murder Jamal Khashoggi? And Did They Support the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks?


With all the talk now about the Saudi government's evident involvement in the premeditated murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and journalist with the Washington Post, it's important to remember that while the Saudis have been our so-called ally in the Middle East, they've never really been our friend. 

It's been 17 years since our country was attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudis. And yet we still have not gotten to the bottom of 9/11. There are still more questions than answers about who was behind the terrorist attack, and what role the Saudi government played. 

It is obvious that the Saudis have been given a pass by American law enforcement and have not been investigated adequately. 

As a journalist, I've covered the 9/11 attack since that horrible morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In those first few months afterward, I learned that the federal agencies whose job it was to get to the bottom of 9/11 were not doing a thorough-enough job. Not even close.

Bill Gore, the current San Diego County Sheriff, is a nice enough man. He's well-liked and respected in San Diego County and has by most accounts done a good job. 

Gore was in charge of the San Diego office of the FBI after 9/11. It was of course his charge to investigative any and all connections between the three hijackers who lived in San Diego and anyone who could have supported their evil plot.

To this day, Gore has never given me or anyone else a full or acceptable explanation as to why the bureau never interviewed dozens of people who had connections to the hijackers, and why the bureau cut loose Saudi national Omar al-Bayoumi and het him go back to Saudi Arabia.

Several men from the Middle East who were in San Diego and knew the hijackers but had far less suspicious ties to them than Bayoumi were jailed in San Diego for months. 

Multiple sources I interviewed at the time told me that Bayoumi was a known Saudi government asset who was keeping an eye on the young Saudis who were living in San Diego. 

The enigmatic Bayoumi, who was evidently wealthy but never had a job during his years here, brought the two 9/11 terrorists to San Diego and paid their rent. But his role in the elaborate 9/11 attack, and the role of several other wealthy, recondite Saudis who were in San Diego at the time, has never been fully explained, as I reported here for The Daily Beast. 

Since 2002, when former Senator Bob Graham led the Joint Intelligence Committee Inquiry (JICI) into the 9/11 attacks, he has insisted that members of the Saudi government played a role.

“There’s no question in my mind that the Saudi government was involved in 9/11,” the Florida Democrat told me for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast. “But there’s still so much we don’t know. Unfortunately, many Americans seem to have lost interest.”

Though a report on the congressional probe (with 28 pages that for many years were censored) was released, after months of political haggling, there was only tepid interest by our federal government in following the 9/11 money trail to Saudi Arabia.

Terrorists could not have pulled off such an ambitious offensive without substantial financial and logistical support, here and abroad. However, countless intelligence leads that might help solve this mystery have clearly been under-investigated or completely overlooked by the FBI, particularly in San Diego as well as in Florida.

During my years covering 9/11 for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, the International Business Times and San Diego Magazine, I’ve interviewed many people with various financial or other connections to the San Diego–based terrorists or to the enigmatic, moneyed San Diego Saudis who knew the hijackers. 
Not one has ever been contacted by bureau agents.

Criticism of the government for under-investigating the Saudi connections to the attack, and how we let it happen in the first place, have come from liberals and conservatives alike for years. 

It was our Congress itself that collectively called the events leading up to the tragedy the “biggest intelligence failure in American history.”

Did we lay off of Saudi Arabia because of the links between the American oil industry and the Saudis? Or was it more because we needed the Saudis as a military ally in the volatile Middle east?

Looking for answers to these questions, it seems logical to start in San Diego, where even the Congressional report suggests the connections to Al Qaeda and the Saudi government were many.

As I've reported over the years, most San Diegans know about Nawaf Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar and Hani Hanjoor, the three Saudi hijackers who spent time here. 

But less is known about Saad Al-Habeeb, Omar Al-Bayoumi and Osama Basnan, three recondite Saudi nationals who’ve been linked to the terrorists and to the Saudi government.

Saad Al-Habeeb

Al-Habeeb, a Saudi national, was called everything from a student to a wealthy international businessman. He remains largely a mystery. But during his weeklong visit to San Diego, Al-Habeeb left his mark by purchasing a building in El Cajon (easty of San Diego) with a $450,000 cashier’s check from Chase Manhattan Bank.

The building was renamed the Masjid Al-Madina Al-Munawara, to be used as a mosque and community center for San Diego’s Kurd Muslims.

Al-Habeeb’s gift was given on the condition that another Saudi, a sociable but enigmatic man named Omar Al-Bayoumi — the friend of the hijackers who had deep ties to the Saudi government — be set up as the building’s maintenance manager. He also was to be given a private office at the mosque, with a phone and a computer.

A half-million-dollar cashier’s check from a mysterious Saudi who had connections to the terrorists and to the Saudi government would seem a glaring red flag, but FBI agents evidently left this clue unchecked.

Santee businessman Richard Fritzer, who sold the El Cajon building to Al-Habeeb, told me at the time that he was never contacted by anyone from the FBI.

“The mosque purchase was described to me as a charitable gift, but I never knew where the money came from or much about Al-Habeeb’s background,” Fritzer said. “I’d obviously like to know if this guy was involved in any way with terrorism. The FBI never called me.”

The then-manager of La Mesa’s Grossmont Escrow, which handled the El Cajon mosque transaction, told me that the FBI never contacted her, either. “No one’s ever asked to look at our records,” said the manager, who requested her name not be used. “It’s somewhat surprising, considering what this was about.”

Erick Ricci, a local civil engineer who also worked on the mosque project, told me at the time that he never heard from the feds. Ricci said all the money for his engineering work on the project was paid to him on behalf of Al-Habeeb and Al-Bayoumi by a San Diego contractor named Aziz Fathy, who is from Egypt.

Ricci used to work with Fathy, he said, and when I spoke to him he told me that he wondered about the nature of the relationship between the Saudis and Fathy, who I was never able to speak to.

Al-Habeeb, who is mentioned only briefly in the congressional 9/11 report and is apparently back in Saudi Arabia now, has said that he made Al-Bayoumi manager of the El Cajon mosque because he was a “good man.”

But the true nature of his relationship with Al-Bayoumi—and their association with the terrorists and the Saudi government—remains a mystery.

Omar Al-Bayoumi

He’s told various stories about what he was doing in the United States, but Al-Bayoumi has been described by some as the front man for the terrorists here. He always maintained that he simply overheard future hijackers Alhazmi and Almihdhar speaking Arabic in a Los Angeles restaurant and befriended them.

But just hours before that so-called chance meeting, Al-Bayoumi visited the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, where law enforcement officials believe he had a closed-door meeting with Fahad al Thumairy, a member of the consulate’s Islamic & Culture Affairs Section who later was barred from entry to the United States because of alleged links to terrorism.

After meeting with al Thumairy, Al-Bayoumi met the hijackers in Los Angeles, then brought them to San Diego, arranged for them to live at the Parkwood Apartments in Clairemont (near the Islamic Center of San Diego) and reportedly paid $1,550 for the first two months’ rent.

Al-Bayoumi — who, with others here in San Diego, helped Alhazmi and Almihdhar open a bank account, obtain car insurance, get Social Security cards and call flight schools in Florida — also threw a welcoming party for the hijackers, during which he introduced them to the local Muslim community.

Rarely appearing at the Kurd mosque where Al-Habeeb had positioned him, Al-Bayoumi was widely suspected by Muslims here to be a Saudi government agent — long before 9/11.

“He was always checking on the young Saudi students,” Henry Bagadan, a Pakistani businessman who worships at the Islamic Center, told me. “I always thought he was a Saudi spy.”

Al-Bayoumi was taken into custody two weeks after the 9/11 attack, while studying in England. During a search of his apartment the FBI found the names and numbers of two Saudi embassy employees. At one point the FBI suspected he was an associate of the terrorists and that he had strong ties to the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C.

Al-Bayoumi was again interviewed by members of Congress, but again allowed to move on with his life.

San Diego civil rights attorney Randy Hamud, who represented four Middle Eastern students who knew the terrorists, as well as the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called “20th hijacker,” told me that the people at the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., told him that they knew Al-Bayoumi well.

But Al-Bayoumi was released after a short detainment, without charge.

“My clients knew the hijackers only casually, yet they spent a long time in jail,” Hamud told me. “Al-Bayoumi brought the hijackers here. He introduced them to one of my clients and to the community, yet Al-Bayoumi is free. 
Clearly, he knows people in high places; he greased the wheels somehow. The Saudis just aren’t being scrutinized, in general, like the others.”

Osama Basnan

Charges of special treatment for Saudi Arabia grew when it was learned the San Diego–connected Saudis and their families were linked to high-ranking Saudi government officials.

Basnan, another San Diego Saudi who was a close friend of Al-Bayoumi, claimed to have written a letter to the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, and his wife, Princess Haifa Faisal, asking for financial help. 

Basnan’s wife, Majeda Dweikat, apparently needed thyroid surgery. As we reported in Newsweek, the Saudi embassy sent Basnan $15,000 and paid the surgical bill.

Princess Haifa apparently began sending monthly checks of between $2,000 and $3,000 to Dweikat in late 1999 or early 2000. Basnan’s wife then signed many of the checks over to Basnan’s friend, Manal Bajadr, who is Al-Bayoumi’s wife. 

The payments from Haifa continued until May 2002 and may have totaled as much as $73,000, say some reports.

During the time he lived here in San Diego, Basnan also reported his passport stolen in Houston, Texas—which confirmed that Basnan was in that city the same day Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met with President Bush.

Basnan and his wife, Dweikat, admitted they had used false immigration documents to stay in the United States, and were arrested. A federal source told Newsweek that, at a gathering in Clairemont, Basnan had called 9/11 “a wonderful, glorious day” and celebrated the hijackers’ “heroism.”

Despite all of this, Basnan was ultimately allowed to return to Saudi Arabia, and Dweikat was deported to Jordan.

San Diego–based attorney Jeremy Warren told me that Basnan “loved this country” and called Basnan’s persecution a witch hunt.

Interestingly, Warren, who rejected Newsweek’s report that Basnan was celebrating the acts of 9/11, also happened to be on the Saudi government’s payroll. Saudi officials paid Warren to defend two Saudi students in a test-taking scam involving 130 Saudi and other Middle Eastern men who wanted to attend school in the United States.

Warren declined to discuss the payment from Saudi officials with me, but a court document revealed a $50,000 cash payment from the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles to Warren for an attorney-client trust account.

Warren said that Basnan and Al-Bayoumi were not close. But that, too, was clearly not the case.

They were neighbors at the Parkwood Apartments in Clairemont, where the hijackers also lived. Prior to that, Basnan and his wife and Al-Bayoumi and his wife were neighbors in another apartment complex nearby.

Also, Basnan’s wife and Al-Bayoumi’s wife were arrested together for shoplifting at JC Penney’s in Fashion Valley in April 2001.

Getting to the Bottom of 9/11


Another man who certainly could have helped investigators get to the bottom of this mystery is Abdussattar Shaikh, a longtime FBI asset in San Diego who was friends with al-Bayoumi and who invited two of the San Diego-based hijackers to live in his home.

However, Shaikh was not allowed by the FBI or the Bush administration to testify before the 9/11 Commission or the JICI.

“For me, that was the low point of the [JICI] investigation,” Graham told me for the Daily Beast. “Bayoumi introduced the hijackers to Shaikh, who clearly knew a lot, but the FBI, who had Shaikh in protective custody, seemed to care more about protecting their asset than allowing us to find out what he knew about 9/11.”

The San Diego FBI office’s pursuit of the local Saudi connections to 9/11 was lukewarm, at best. When former San Diego FBI chief Gore retired to join the San Diego District Attorney’s office, he didn’t even know where Al-Bayoumi was.

In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune,conducted before Gore retired from the bureau, he said he believed Al-Bayoumi was still in England.

At that time, several independent sources were already saying that Al-Bayoumi had been back in Saudi Arabia for several months. When Gore’s error was pointed out to another FBI agent here, the agent conceded Gore had erred, adding, “He can’t be expected to know every detail of every investigation.”

No, not every detail. But he should know the whereabouts of the individual who paid the hijackers rent and brought them to San Diego.

Some critics say the United States’ lack of aggressiveness in following the terrorists’ money trail back to Saudi Arabia, to this day, has to do with American business and military interests in that country.

Whatever the case, government spokesmen in Saudi Arabia have emphatically denied over the years that al Qaeda is supported in any way by officials there. 

But some U.S officials, including former Sen. Graham of Florida, continue to emphatically insist that the Saudi government had a role in the 9/11 attack.

My Timeline of Coverage of the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks:

2002

2003
2010

2011

2012
2013