Terrorist Lawfare and the Dallas Morning News

Ten years ago, the founders of the Richardson Texas-based Holy Land Foundation -- the largest Islamic charity organization in the United States at the time -- were found guilty of a variety of charges including conspiracy, money laundering, terrorist finance, and tax evasion. In 2009 the five defendants, now commonly known as the HLF five, were given sentences of between fifteen and sixty-five years in prison for funneling money to Hamas through a charity front organization and for other terror-related activities.

The case is often looked to as an unequivocal victory over shadowy Islamist figures intent on civilizational jihad. However, few are aware of the profoundly negative effect the trial had on the local and national coverage of terrorist finance cases like HLF.

Todd Bensman was a reporter for the Dallas Morning News from 1993 to 2003. He remembers the strategic campaign launched against the Dallas Morning News by such organizations as Muslims Against Defamation at the time of the investigation.

The campaign involved daily protests, a boycott of the newspaper and the creation of a website that featured a “Black List” of Morning News reporters, including Bensman.  The website’s webmaster, John Janney, today the Executive Director of CAIR-DFW, said in an interview at the time that the newspaper’s reporters “hate HLF and they hate Muslims.”

Bensman says he remembers the daily protests of Muslim groups in 2000 very well:

They had them every day for months, months, at about lunchtime. They would all gather around on the outside of the building with picket signs. I don’t really remember a lot of the picket signs, but I know that a lot of them would name Steve McGonigle by name, and call him names and things. They did that for a long time.

Steve McGonigle was the investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News who first covered the Holy Land case. He became “Public Enemy #1” on the website when, by looking at public records, he found that the political leader of Hamas, Mousa Abu Marzak, had given hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding to Holy Land. He continued to cover the case until his editors informed him that he could no longer write on the subject.

In April 2000, the Holy Land Foundation sued the Dallas Morning News, its parent company A.H. Belo, and a number of Morning News reporters, including Bensman. Today Bensman says that lawsuit was a good example of the effectiveness of “lawfare.”

We were following the lead of Federal investigators who had actives cases on these guys. If you know that the FBI has got a major terrorism case, that’s called news. You follow the news wherever it goes.

Marc Finc, the Director of the Legal Project at Middle East Forum, an organization that works to protect researchers and analysts who work on the topics of terrorism, terrorist funding, and radical Islam from lawsuits designed to silence their free speech, agrees that the media play a key role in maintaining freedom of the press in the face of strategic lawfare:

Journalists need the freedom to follow facts. Otherwise, the body politic is ignorant of the threat it faces until it is too late. Unfortunately, western media has been too quick to self-censor and surrender to this lawfare rather than fight for a free press.

After HLF filed the lawsuit, news reporters at Dallas Morning News were told not to cover any stories about the investigation, according to Bensman. They also did not cover the daily protests of Muslim groups in front of the newspaper that went on for months in 2000.Nor did they print any stories about the lawsuit itself.

Nobody covered it. It was a very effective lawsuit in terms of controlling coverage and clamping the coverage down. The paper just really rolled over, very timid and frightened about the whole thing. They just wanted it to go away.

The terms of the final settlement are not available for public record, but Bensman remembers that reporters at the paper were told that certain reporters would no longer write about Holy Land Foundation and that the group was given permission to review stories before publication.

More than ten years have passed since the newspaper settled with Holy Land Foundation. While the legal position of those who filed the lawsuit against the Morning News has significantly changed since the conviction of the Holy Land Five on November 24, 2008, the effect of the lawsuit on how such trials are covered continues and can be seen in the lack of coverage of other terrorist finance cases today.