People invited to the Washington-area office of terrorism expert Steven Emerson say he sets one condition: They must swear never to reveal its location. Some visitors have been blindfolded as they're driven to his headquarters, where the masks are removed to reveal a warren of rooms piled high with dossiers, transcripts and videotapes, they say. The people who work there call it "the bat cave."
The copper-haired Emerson, 47, has used this trove to carve out a unique role for himself as an unpaid consultant-in-chief on terrorism to reporters and federal officials. He is also a front line combatant in a grim struggle, fought by blast fax and mass e-mail -- a kind of proxy Washington war that engenders emotions nearly as raw as those in the Middle East.
His slashing accusations that some Islamic groups in the United States tolerate terrorism draw denunciations from groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group, which calls Emerson "a Muslim-basher with a long history of defamatory and inaccurate attacks on the American Muslim community."
Since the Sept. 11 bombings, the heavily caffeinated Emerson, who says he operates on five hours of sleep a night, has privately laid out his terrorism findings to officials at the Justice Department, FBI, Customs Service, National Security Council and the White House. He also has been in contact with Treasury Department officials acting to freeze terrorists' assets.
Emerson has given closed-door briefings to the banking and judiciary committees of both chambers of Congress and to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Copies of his hour-long 1994 documentary, "Jihad in America," were given to all 535 members of Congress and "played a real role" in winning House passage of the recent anti-terrorism bill, says Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.)
"They're turning to me because they're being told, 'Get the job done,' " Emerson says. "It's not lobbying that effects terrorism policy. It's information."
For years, most news organizations treated Emerson as radioactive, swayed in part by his critics' charges that he is anti-Muslim and prone to error. It doesn't help that he is famously abrasive and confrontational.
But since the Sept. 11 attacks, he's become an object of desire for talk show bookers. He's logged almost 3,000 telephone calls at his office and on his cellular phone, usually affixed to his ear during taxicab rides between appointments. A paid consultant to NBC, he has appeared at least 50 times on its networks since the hijackings, and has been quoted in print dozens of times.
Emerson says the September attacks, plus the subsequent federal probes and journalistic exposés, validate his research showing America is home to clusters of Muslim radicals. "We now know more about terrorists using deception to commingle in our society and exploiting the freedoms we enjoy, which is what I've said for years," he says.
Yet James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and a longtime Emerson adversary, says the fact that 19 men from the Middle East committed a terrorist atrocity in no way substantiates Emerson's decade-long body of work warning of a U.S.-based Muslim threat to the United States.
"He's made his life's work discrediting Arab American and Muslim groups, and his obsession makes me uncomfortable," says Zogby.
A scathing report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations lists what it considers his many exaggerations, such as his 1997 statement to the Jerusalem Post that "the U.S. has become occupied fundamentalist territory."
His defenders, including the nation's major Jewish organizations and some current and retired federal law enforcement officials, say the critics' attacks on Emerson are groundless and that much of his research has proved prophetic.
Robert Blitzer, the FBI's counterterrorism chief until he retired in 1998, wrote to a security magazine in 1999 that Emerson "is better informed in many areas of terrorism than we were in the government."
But Emerson's access in Washington infuriates his critics.
"Elected and public officials say this war on terrorism isn't a war on Islam," says Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for CAIR and a bitter Emerson opponent. "But if they're consulting Mr. Emerson, it calls into question the credibility of those statements."
Typical of the statements that his enemies call incendiary is Emerson's refrain that radicals have "captured" many Muslim groups here. Another, from an Emerson essay in 1995, was that "the number one threat facing the U.S. domestically and internationally is militant Islam" -- a point Emerson says was confirmed on Sept. 11.
But Emerson has made missteps. A day after the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed in 1995, he went on television theorizing -- wrongly -- that the culprits were Arab. Attempting "to inflict as many casualties as possible -- that is a Middle Eastern trait," he said in one interview, one of many statements his enemies call reckless and biased.
In any case, Emerson shares his moment with no one. Unmarried and wary of submitting a mate to his dramas, Emerson says the unused half of his bed at home is strewn with court documents, telephone records and bioterror updates.
Fearful of retribution from extremists, he declines to provide details of his upbringing. Armed with a master's degree in sociology from Brown University, he started his Washington career decades ago on the staff of Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Later he worked as a reporter for U.S. News & World Report and wrote several books, including "The Fall of Pan Am 103" in 1990 and "Terrorist" in 1991.
While covering an unrelated story in Oklahoma City for CNN in 1992, Emerson says he happened to stroll downtown, only to find hundreds of Arab youths attending a conference. Intrigued, he talked his way in by claiming to be a Muslim convert, and was shocked to find tables filled with literature from terrorist groups such as Hamas and to hear speeches calling for death to Americans.
His "Jihad" film ran on public television two years later. It featured covertly taped scenes of men in U.S. hotel conference rooms, often speaking in Arabic, raising money for terrorist causes. Some called for violence against America and Israel, and one of the radicals went on to found a precursor group to al Qaeda with Osama bin Laden. After the film's release, federal authorities said they picked up evidence of a plot on Emerson's life by a Middle Eastern hit team and warned him.
American Muslim groups said the film imputed evil activities at what they say were humdrum gatherings. CAIR's Hooper said Emerson mischaracterized a speech by one militant, who told an Atlanta gathering in 1990, "Allah's religion, be He praised, must offer skulls, must offer martyrs; blood must flow, there must be widows." Hooper said this was a call for "Muslim sacrifices, of the kind Winston Churchill termed 'blood, toil, tears and sweat,' to be offered in the liberation of Afghanistan."
Even so, the film won a prestigious George Polk Award for journalism and helped Emerson secure money for more research. He declines to specify who funds his group, called the Investigative Project, beyond saying that the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum -- also attacked by his critics as anti-Islamic -- has supplied some funds. Associates say much of Emerson's cash has come from conservatives like Richard Mellon Scaife and Jewish individuals and groups. He strenuously denies his critics' vague accusations that he is secretly funded by the Israeli or U.S. governments.
His staff of six and an equal number of interns, several of them Arabic speakers, comb the Internet and the world media, subscribe to Arab publications using made-up names and swap information with law enforcement and intelligence officials around the world. His group also dispatches associates to gatherings of Muslims with hidden microphones to record speeches by radical leaders.
After six people died in the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, the FBI was desperate for this kind of information. Scandals in the 1980s that unearthed improper FBI snooping on church groups opposed to U.S. policy in Central America had prompted stiff restrictions on FBI probes into political and religious entities. Agents were barred even from collecting news clippings on such groups, unless they could show a crime had been committed.
"We were scared to death to open investigations of groups," says a former federal counterterrorism official who requested anonymity. "Internally, you'd get clobbered."
In walked Emerson with his files. "He was able to go places an agent couldn't go," the former official says. "He was getting a good view of what was going on inside some basically good organizations being used by radicals."
"Emerson is our country's leading expert and investigative journalist on Middle Eastern terrorist groups," Andrew McCarthy, a top federal prosecutor on terrorism cases in Manhattan, said in a statement in 1998 that Emerson solicited and distributes. "His information is accurate and precise. The attacks on him by radical Islamic groups should be seen for exactly what they are -- attacks by radical Islamic groups."
But Emerson can be his own worst enemy. Miami Herald reporter Martin Merzer once called him for comment on a case involving alleged terrorist sympathizers in Florida, and said he had written an earlier piece on the controversy. He said Emerson replied: "What perspective did you take, that this is a brutal Zionist plot against the weak, underprivileged Arab minority?" After sensing the new piece would be unflattering, Emerson sent a nasty letter about Merzer to his editor and local Jewish leaders.
In 1998, Emerson heard a Muslim activist planned to leaflet against him at a New York speech of his. He dashed off a withering seven-page response, which included the false assertion that in the 1960s one of his critics, California journalist Reese Erlich, "was charged with conspiracy to carry out violence in support of the Black Panthers." Emerson apologized and paid Erlich $3,000.
Emerson's enemies also cite an incident in 1996, when Emerson helped Associated Press reporters on a terrorism series. After the series ran, an alternative newspaper in Florida that has long criticized Emerson quoted an AP reporter saying he believed Emerson had misrepresented a memo about Arab radicals as an FBI-authored document.
Emerson said it was a misunderstanding -- and that the memo was written by an FBI informant. Emerson is suing the Florida paper and the AP reporter, whose attorney, Pat Anderson, said, "There was no misunderstanding."
CAIR and other Emerson detractors level harsher accusations -- that he is a tool of Israeli intelligence. He denies it but says he does swap data with the Israelis -- as well as with intelligence officials from other nations, including Germany, England and Arab countries he declines to name.
Emerson has always refused to say publicly what religion he is. Associates say he is Jewish, and some of his critics point out this fact to a reporter in private conversations. "I don't think my religion is the issue," Emerson says. "I wouldn't ask a reporter writing on abortion if he's Catholic."
He denies he is anti-Muslim, citing his close ties to a handful of Islamic clerics and academics who oppose suicide bombings. "I've said many times that the vast majority of Muslims in the U.S. and abroad don't support violence," he says.
To Zogby's way of thinking, Emerson's flaw is his monolithic view of Arab society.
"He doesn't understand the hubbub of ethnic politics," Zogby says. Like migrants from Italy and Ireland, Zogby says, Arab newcomers "have one foot here [in America] and one foot there," with many sympathizing with movements back home that Washington calls terrorist.
"Do they skirt close to the edge by tolerating [terrorism] overseas?" Zogby says. "Yes, they're tolerant and ambivalent about it. Would they do it [commit terrorist acts]? No. They're here, they're in school, they're working."
Emerson has perhaps drawn the most heat for saying groups such as CAIR fail to distance themselves from terrorism, particularly against Israel -- a view endorsed by some law enforcement officials.
CAIR denies that it and other domestic Muslim groups carry water for terrorists. "The pro-Israel lobby uses Emerson as their point man going after political participation by Muslims and Arabs," CAIR's Hooper says. "We make no apology for defending Palestinian rights."
Emerson also is unapologetic.
"I engender more resentment than other terrorism experts who only speak generally about the threat because I name groups by name," he says. "I can't let it go."