Farrakhan terror tour heats up congressional debate

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Louis Farrakhan's supporters descended on Washington again this week, this time to answer a congressional probe into the Nation of Islam leader's foreign travels.

At a tense congressional hearing, lawmakers criticized Farrakhan for verbal attacks he made against the United States during his recent tour of nations such as Iran and Libya.

The criticism prompted angry jeers from Farrakhan's backers in the audience. Two people were arrested and charged after being ejected for disrupting the proceedings.

The hearing came just days after black newspaper publishers honored Farrakhan as "Newsmaker of the Year." The honor was met with dismay among Jewish groups.

One of the four criteria for the award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association is the display of a "higher level of moral authority."

The Nation of Islam leader has come under fire for his recent tour of at least 18 countries. The trip included stops in Iraq and Sudan, which along with Iran and Libya are considered by the United States as sponsors of international terrorism.

Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.), who chairs the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, said the hearing was part of an ongoing attempt to investigate rogue regimes and their efforts to influence U.S. policy.

Foreign policy experts testified about the relationship between those nations and U.S. interests.

But the main focus was clearly on Farrakhan.

"It is self-evident that this hearing was called in response to a series of statements made by Louis Farrakhan to some of the most despicable, bloody dictatorships on the face of this planet," said Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo).

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the Nation of Islam leader's most outspoken critic in Congress, said the trip was a "terror tour" and called Farrakhan "a vicious racist and hatemonger as well as a potential national security threat."

"When you combine a foreign dictator and a foreign tyrant such as [Libyan leader] Moammar Khadafy with a domestic racist such as Louis Farrakhan, that is dangerous to our nation," King said to coughs and jeers from the Farrakhan supporters in the hearing room.

In Tripoli, Khadafy reportedly pledged $1 billion to finance Farrakhan's U.S. political activities.

In Iran, a newspaper quoted Farrakhan as labeling the United States the "Great Satan" and saying that "God will destroy America at the hands of Muslims."

The Justice and Treasury departments have launched inquiries to determine whether he violated any laws during his trip.

Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, criticized the hearing. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, (D-Ga.) stopped short of defending Farrakhan, but suggested that the hearing may have been "a thinly veiled attempt to do a little Farrakhan bashing."

"Louis Farrakhan is not above the law, but neither is Louis Farrakhan beneath the protections of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights," she said.

"I don't offend him and he doesn't offend me," Payne said of Farrakhan.

Farrakhan was not asked to testify and did not attend, but scores of his backers, led by his chief of staff, Leonard Mohammed, packed the hearing room. Others lined the corridor outside.

"To have a hearing and to mention the names of repressive people and oppressive people as though the Nation should be mentioned in that same group is very unfair, but I think the American people know better," Mohammed said.

A woman was arrested and escorted from the committee room after standing up and shouting, "I cannot stand to sit here and see you point the finger at a man who has saved the souls of many in this country."

U.S. Capitol police said she and another individual were charged with disruption of Congress, a misdemeanor.

At the close of the hearing, some of Farrakhan's top aides and supporters angrily denounced Rep. Smith as a "liar," saying that he had agreed to allow them to testify.

Smith replied that the committee's record would remain open for written testimony.

Next week, the House will debate a resolution introduced by King and Lantos condemning Farrakhan's travels and calling on the Clinton administration to step up its investigation.