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The Hariri Mirage Returns

By Robert Parry
July 23, 2006

Editor's Note: The lead story in this Sunday's New York Times describes the Bush administration's plans to crank up the pressure on Syria's government and, in that context, the Times twice references Syria's alleged guilt in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In the second paragraph, reporters Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger cite "Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri's killing" and later mention U.S. actions taken "after Syrian officials were accused of involvement in Mr. Hariri's assassination." But an unsuspecting Times reader might not realize that, one, Syria has denied these allegations and, two, that many of the claims in a preliminary United Nations report have since collapsed.

If Syria were not an unpopular target of the U.S. government, such breaches in journalistic practices would not be tolerated. Certainly, the Times editors would have demanded at least the perfunctory denial of guilt by the accused and, most likely, would have insisted on some perspective about the controversial murder allegations.

But this Times pattern of double standards does not stand alone. In a similar circumstance in 2002, the Times ran front-page articles trumpeting evidence of Iraq's supposed nuclear weapons program and other White House allegations about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Those influential articles helped shape the distorted war debate that preceded George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In view of the importance of having more balanced coverage of the Middle East crisis, we are reprinting below our last story, from June 16, about the status of the Hariri investigation:

In October 2005, the drumbeat had begun for a confrontation with a rogue Middle East regime based on supposedly strong evidence about its nefarious secret activities. The U.S. news media trumpeted the regime’s guilt and agreed on the need for action, though there was debate whether forcible regime change was the way to go.

A half year later, however, much of that once clear evidence has melted away and what seemed so certain to the TV pundits and the major newspapers looks now to be another case of a rush to judgment against an unpopular target.

The drumbeat in October 2005 was directed at the Syrian government for its alleged role in masterminding the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a bomb blast in Beirut, Lebanon, on Feb. 14, 2005. A preliminary United Nations investigative report fingered senior Syrian officials as the likely architects of the killing.

“There is probable cause to believe that the decision to assassinate former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri could not have been taken without the approval of top-ranked Syrian security officials and could not have been further organized without the collusion of their counterparts in the Lebanese security services,” declared the U.N.’s first interim report on Oct. 20. President George W. Bush immediately termed the findings “very disturbing” and called for the Security Council to take action against Syria.

The U.S. press quickly joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct. 25, a New York Times editorial said the U.N. investigation had been “tough and meticulous” in establishing “some deeply troubling facts” about Hariri’s murderers. The Times demanded punishment of top Syrian officials and their Lebanese allies implicated by the investigation, although the Times cautioned against the Bush administration’s eagerness for “regime change.”

But – as we noted at the time – the U.N. investigative report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis was anything but “meticulous.” Indeed, it read more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the truth. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]

Mehlis’s initial report, for instance, had failed to follow up a key lead, the Japanese identification of the Mitsubishi Canter Van that apparently carried the explosives used in the bombing that killed Hariri and 22 others. The van was reported stolen in Sagamihara City, Japan, on Oct. 12, 2004, four months before the bombing, but Mehlis’s hasty report indicated no effort to investigate how the vehicle got from the island of Japan to Beirut or who might have last possessed it.

False Leads

The report also relied heavily on the testimony of two dubious witnesses. One of those witnesses – Zuhair Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik – was later identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from his Hariri testimony.

The other, Hussam Taher Hussam, later recanted his testimony about Syrian involvement, saying he lied to the Mehlis investigation after being kidnapped, tortured and offered $1.3 million by Lebanese officials.

Some observers believed Mehlis had found himself under intense international pressure to reach negative conclusions about Syria, much like the demands put on U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix when he was searching Iraq for alleged weapons of mass destruction in early 2003. Unable to find WMD despite U.S. insistence that the WMD was there, Blix tried to steer a middle course to avert a head-on confrontation with the Bush administration, which nevertheless brushed aside his muted objections and invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Similarly, after the Hariri assassination, the Bush administration made clear its animosity toward Syria by escalating its anti-Syrian rhetoric, also blaming the government of Bashar Assad for the infiltration of foreign jihadists into Iraq where they have attacked U.S. troops. So, Mehlis’s accusations against Syria helped advance Bush’s geopolitical agenda.

But having relied on “witnesses” who now appear to have been set-ups, Mehlis found his investigation under a cloud. In a follow-up report on Dec. 10, 2005, he sought to salvage his position by hurling accusations of witness tampering at Syrian authorities. But by then, as noted in a New York Times news article, the conflicting accusations had given the Mehlis investigation the feel of “a fictional spy thriller.” [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]

Mehlis withdrew from the investigation and was replaced by Serge Brammertz of Belgium in early 2006.

Revamped Probe

Over the past several months, Brammertz quietly jettisoned many of Mehlis’s conclusions and began entertaining other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and a number of potential perpetrators in recognition of the animosities Hariri had engendered among business competitors, religious extremists and political enemies.

Brammertz said “the probe was … developing a working hypothesis regarding those who had commissioned the crime,” according to a U.N. statement, which was released after Brammertz briefed the Security Council on June 14. “Given the many different positions occupied by Mr. Hariri, and his wide range of public and private-sector activities, the [U.N.] commission was investigating a number of different motives, including political motivations, personal vendettas, financial circumstances and extremist ideologies, or any combination of those motivations,”

In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis’s single-minded theory that had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials and was approaching the investigation with an open mind. As part of his “wide reach,” Brammertz said he had made 32 requests for information to 13 different countries.

Though Syria’s freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts remain on everyone’s suspect list, Brammertz has adopted a far less confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria than Mehlis did. Brammertz said cooperation from Syria “has generally been satisfactory” as its government responded to investigative requests “in a timely manner.”

Syria had kind words for Brammertz’s report, too. Fayssal Mekdad, Syria’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, praised “its objectivity and professionalism” and said the investigators “had begun to uncover the truth a few months ago,” after Mehlis departed. Mekdad promised that Syria would continue supporting efforts “to unveil and uncover the truth about the assassination,” according to the June 14 U.N. statement.

Mekdad said he believed the biggest danger from the investigation was “exploitation by certain parties, inside or outside the region, the tendency to ‘jump to conclusions or prejudgments not based on clear evidence or proof,’ and attempts to provide false evidence to the [U.N.] commission for the main purpose of pressuring Syria,” the U.N. statement read.

The Syrian diplomat added that the investigation should continue in its pursuit of solid evidence about Hariri’s murder, free from “politicization and false and erroneous hypotheses,” according to the U.N. statement.

Missed Story

Though the U.N. statement contained no direct criticism of Mehlis’s earlier efforts, Brammertz’s investigation represented an obvious break from the approach of his predecessor. Still, the U.S. news media, which had played the initial Mehlis accusations against Syria as front-page news, barely mentioned the shift in the revamped U.N. probe.

Virtually nothing has appeared in the U.S. news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the distinct impression they got last year – that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut – was now a whole lot fuzzier. Much like the failure to highlight contrary evidence against the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction in 2002 and early 2003, the national press corps apparently doesn’t want to be seen as questioning the evidence against Syria.

On one level, this failure to be evenhanded with an unpopular regime like Syria goes to the career fears of journalists who can expect that balanced reporting in such a case might earn the label “Syrian apologist.” That risk rises dramatically if it turns out later that the Syrian security officials were guilty after all.

Journalists faced similar worries during the run-up to the Iraq War when any skepticism about the Bush administration's WMD claims brought down the wrath of many readers, political leaders and even news executives caught up in the war fever. Career-minded reporters judged that the smart strategy was to play up the anti-Iraq WMD claims – even when they came from dubious and self-interested sources – and to play down or ignore counter-evidence.

However, after three years of bloody war in Iraq and the failure of the U.S. government to find any WMD stockpiles, Americans might have expected the major U.S. news media to show a little more skepticism and exercise a little more caution when a new round of unproven allegations were leveled at another unpopular Middle Eastern regime, such as Iran on its nuclear program or Syria on the Hariri assassination.

In the Syria case, however, other factors – most notably the military quagmire that has bogged down 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq – gave cooler heads the time to take a second look at the evidence about the Hariri assassination and examine a wider range of possibilities. By refusing to be led in any one direction, the Brammertz investigation might even succeed in finding the truth.

But the other more intractable question remains: Is today’s U.S. press corps capable of learning any lasting lessons from its past mistakes?


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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