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Palestinian negotiator backtracks on CIA charge

Feb. 4, 2011 9:39 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 17, 2011 9:46 P.M.)
By: George Hale

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- The PLO's chief negotiator has backed down from allegations an Al-Jazeera journalist worked for the CIA and stole a cache of documents on behalf of the Qatar-based TV network.

Saeb Erekat claimed in January that Clayton Swisher, a US citizen and Al-Jazeera International journalist, was a current member of the CIA who had worked six months in the PLO's Negotiations Support Unit.

Pressed by Ma'an for evidence of the CIA charge, a dangerous allegation for an American in some parts of the Middle East, Erekat conceded the journalist neither worked for the Palestinians nor the US intelligence agency.

Investigators are still seeking information about the leak and will attempt to compel Swisher to testify, but "he didn't work for the CIA ... No, he never worked in my office," Erekat said late Thursday in an interview at Ma'an headquarters. He also fielded questions about the leak from a live studio audience.

Erekat's latest comments marked a departure from allegations he made on air and in private in the immediate aftermath of the scandal brought by Al-Jazeera's release of the Palestine papers.

The 1,600 pages of minutes, maps and proposals show negotiators made major concessions in talks with Israel. The documents suggest the PLO would abandon settlement blocs and refugees' right of return.

Defending his actions as chief negotiator in an interview with Al-Jazeera on Jan. 26, Erekat accused the network of ignoring its journalists' ties to the US and European intelligence communities.

The PA's concessions are not binding, and it insists many have been taken out of context. (Two documents seen by Agence France-Presse suggest the Palestinians briefly stuck to their guns on certain issues.)

Still, many Palestinians were as outraged by the PA's response as they were at the revelations, saying both exposed a leadership out of touch with its people. In Gaza, Hamas organized mass protests condemning the PA.

As soon as the papers were released, the Palestinian government in Ramallah repeatedly denounced Al-Jazeera and its Qatari sponsors. On Thursday, Erekat said the disclosure was a national security issue.

That is why the PA is moving forward on an internal investigation into the source of the leaks, Erekat says. The committee has already questioned Erekat and cleared him of wrongdoing, he said.

Now it wants Swisher and two other foreign nationals to appear for questioning.

The PA has not formally stated why its investigators want to interrogate the others. One of them is a writer who once worked in British intelligence and another is a French citizen of Arab origin.

"I'm not accusing them of anything," Erekat said. "We just want to talk to them. All we want is due process."

Al-Jazeera did not answer calls, but a representative of Swisher has categorically denied the allegations. He says the remarks are dangerous, asking Ma'an to remove them from past articles.

Erekat did not say why he initially accused the journalist of being a CIA operative, noting only Swisher's brief employment with the State Dept.'s bureau of diplomatic security. (Both sides agree on that point.)

In any case, the PA has requested assistance from the US State Dept., British foreign office, and French authorities, Erekat said. Asked if any were cooperating, he said Washington was reviewing legal procedures.

"The US told me they were still studying the request," Erekat said.

The State Dept. did not respond to several attempts to confirm its involvement.
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