New Castle News

May 10, 2013

‘What Killed Arafat?’: Neshannock grad nominated for prestigious award for investigation of late Palestinian leader

Kayleen Cubbal
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Clayton Swisher once helped keep Yasser Arafat alive.

Little could Swisher have known that, ultimately, he would find himself investigating the Palestinian leader’s death.

The 36-year-old Neshannock High graduate, the manager of investigative journalism for Al Jazeera Media Network, led a group that released a film, “What Killed Afafat?” (Al Jazeera Investigates), which is nominated for an award for best Current Affairs documentary at Sunday’s British Academy of Film and Television Arts at Royal Festival Hall in London. The BAFTAs are the equivalent of the Emmy Awards in the United States.



THE BEGINNING

Swisher, a son of Mary Swisher of Michigan and James Swisher Jr. of Pittsburgh, holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree from Georgetown University.

He says his success did not come without the overcoming of some obstacles.

“In high school, I was best known for troublemaking, but football and work at New Castle Auto Wrecking left me too exhausted to find myself in too deep,” he said. “In fact, it was the mentorship of good Neshannock folks that helped me escape my adolescence, especially Emmanuel “Junior” Morrone and “Hank” Forney.

 “Later, while in college, Neshannock constable Robert Capezio and (then) Lawrence County District Attorney Matthew Mangino also gave me opportunities to pursue law enforcement rather than law-breaking,” Swisher added in jest.

While at Pitt, Swisher served in the Marine Corps Reserves with a Military Police Company in North Versailles, and following his graduation, spent three years as a special agent with the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.  

It was there that he came to meet Arafat, while serving as a bodyguard to him on four occasions in 2000 during attempts by the United States to negotiate a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The first time was during Arafat’s June visit to the United States; the second was later that month during then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit with Arafat to Ramallah, in the Occupied West Bank, to plan the July Camp David Summit; next was during the Camp David Summit, attended by then-President Clinton, Albright, Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak; and, later that year, the final chance arose during an emergency meeting at the residence of the U.S. Ambassador to France with Albright and then-CIA director George Tenet.

“My interactions with Arafat then were purely professional,” Swisher said. “There was a peace process ongoing then between Israelis and Palestinians, so negotiating with Arafat was central to that process. Keeping him alive and protected from any harm was our narrow mission.”



FINAL MEETING

After leaving his State Department post, Swisher had occasion to meet up with Arafat one final time in May 2003 in Ramallah, when Swisher was a Georgetown graduate student researching the peace process for a book, “The Truth About Camp David.”

“At that point, Arafat was demonized by the George W. Bush Administration, not to mention much of the world, and squarely blamed for all that went wrong during the previous attempts by the Clinton Administration to resolve the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict,” Swisher said.

In 2007, Swisher joined Al Jazeera. Initially launched as an Arabic news and current affairs satellite TV channel, Al Jazeera since has expanded into a network with several outlets, including the Internet and specialty TV channels in multiple languages, including Al Jazeera English, Arabic, Balkans and the upcoming Al Jazeera America.

In late 2011, Swisher, who lives in Doha, Qatar, headquarters of the Al Jazeera Media Network, initiated a cold-case investigation into Arafat’s death. He traveled to Malta and obtained his entire medical files from Arafat’s widow, Suha Arafat.  

Suha later provided Swisher with a gym bag that contained her husband’s last personal belongings, which were in his possession at a French military hospital where he died on Nov. 11, 2004. Swisher took all the items Suha had given him to Europe’s leading forensic laboratory, the University Centre for Legal Medicine in Lausanne, Switzerland.  

Clothing worn just before the sudden onset of Arafat’s sickness and other medicines were tested. Scientists there found Arafat’s hair, which was confirmed through DNA provided by his daughter and widow, as well as a blood stain from his hospital gown, a urine stain from his underwear, his toothbrush and sweat stains from his shirt collar.

When those samples were tested by the radiological experts, they discovered elevated levels of Polonium 210, a deadly radiological substance. Those results were included in “What Killed Arafat?” (which is available on YouTube).

“The results were astounding, and exceeded my wildest expectations,” Swisher said.



INVESTIGATING MURDER?

Two months later, a French court opened a murder investigation and requested to exhume Arafat’s body from his grave in Ramallah. On Nov. 27, 2012, his remains were collected by forensic teams from France, Switzerland and Russia. The results are due this summer.  

“What Killed Arafat?” has won the 2013 Communicator Award for Excellence, was a finalist for the 2013 Investigative Reporters and Editors and earned nominations for the Royal Television Society 2013 “Scoop of the Year.” Following Sunday’s BAFTA Awards, it will be up for “Best Documentary” at the June 12 Monte Carlo Television Festival.

Swisher says he hopes to write a book about the Arafat investigation. In addition to “The Truth About Camp David,” he also authored, “The Palestine Papers.”

“When I last saw Arafat alive, he was living with Israeli tanks just meters from his compound, under the threat of assassination by Israel,” Swisher said. “Arafat was defiant and proud to be sticking to what he considered were principals that his public fully supported.

“The whole thing feels surreal to find myself years later involved in this case, particularly given the breakthrough we’ve made,” he added.

(Email: kcubbal@ncnewsonline.com).