The article entitled “A U.N. Betrayal in Beirut” by op-ed contributor Michael Young argues that the original United Nations-authorized Hariri investigation, which pointed the finger of guilt at the Syrian government and its Lebanese allies, was correct but was then undercut by U.N. officials for political reasons.

The hero of the Times op-ed is German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, who headed the initial U.N. inquiry and was subsequently replaced by Belgian investigator Serge Brammertz, who is portrayed as an incompetent who squandered Mehlis’s supposedly courageous work. Young wrote:

“Mr. Mehlis had few doubts about Syria’s involvement, and said so in his first report. He asked for President Assad’s testimony (over Syrian protests), interviewed Syrian intelligence officers in Vienna and arrested suspects. When Mr. Mehlis stepped down from his position in December, 2005, he felt he had enough to arrest at least one of the intelligence officers.

“However, the investigation wilted under his successor. … Mr. Brammertz issued uninformative reports and displayed a lack of transparency that discouraged potential witnesses, unsure of whether he had solid evidence in hand, from coming forward; … he failed to follow through on the interviews with the Syrian officers; and though he met with President Assad, he apparently did not formally take down his testimony.”

Young’s narrative fits with the Times’ previous hostility toward the Syrians regarding the Hariri case and other issues, much as the Times regularly tilted its coverage against Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and currently slants its reporting against the government of Iran.

On the Hariri case, the Times would have its readers believe that U.N. leaders lost their nerve and dumped a brilliant prosecutor in favor of an incompetent to sabotage the case.

But what Young and the Times failed to disclose on Sunday was that Mehlis’s initial investigation amounted to a rush to judgment that relied heavily on two witnesses whose testimony was later discredited or retracted. His successor, Brammertz, had no choice but to retrace Mehlis’s steps because there had been so many slip-ups.

The murder mystery began on Feb. 14, 2005, when an explosion destroyed a car carrying Hariri through the streets of Beirut.

Because Syria was then on President George W. Bush’s hit list for “regime change” – and Syria was considered a front-line enemy of Israel – speculative evidence of Syrian guilt was an easy sell to the U.S. news media. When Mehlis’s preliminary report was issued, there was little U.S. media skepticism about its assertions of guilt regarding Syrian leaders and their Lebanese allies.

“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 Mehlis’s report on Oct. 20, 2005.

Despite the curiously vague wording – “probable cause to believe” the killing “could not have been taken without the approval” and “without the collusion” – Bush immediately termed the findings “very disturbing” and called for the U.N. Security Council to take action against Syria.

The U.S. press joined the stampede in assuming Syrian guilt. On Oct. 25, 2005, 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.

But Mehlis’s investigative report was anything but “meticulous.” Indeed, it read more like a compilation of circumstantial evidence and conspiracy theories than a dispassionate pursuit of the truth.

As a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Saudi monarchy, Hariri had many enemies who might have wanted him dead for his business or political dealings. The Syrians were not alone in having a motive to eliminate Hariri.

Indeed, after the assassination, a videotape was delivered to al-Jazeera television on which a Lebanese youth, Ahmad Abu Adass, claimed to have carried out the suicide bombing on behalf of Islamic militants angered by Hariri’s work for “the agent of the infidels” in Saudi Arabia.

However, Mehlis relied on two witnesses – Zuhair Ibn Muhammad Said Saddik and Hussam Taher Hussam – to dismiss the videotape as part of a disinformation campaign designed to deflect suspicion from Syria.

Mehlis then spun a narrative of a Syrian conspiracy to kill Hariri. Four pro-Syrian Lebanese security officials were jailed on suspicion of involvement in Hariri's murder. Everything was falling neatly into place.

As a new U.S. press hysteria built over another case of pure evil traced to the doorstep of an American adversary in the Muslim world, holes in the U.N. report were mostly ignored. At Consortiumnews.com, we produced one of the few critical examinations of what had the looks of a rush to judgment. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Dangerously Incomplete Hariri Report.”]

A Case Crumbles

Much like the Bush administration’s Iraqi WMD claims – which the Times also touted uncritically – Mehlis’s Hariri case against the Syrians soon began to crumble.

One witness, Saddik, was identified by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel as a swindler who boasted about becoming “a millionaire” from his Hariri testimony. The other one, Hussam, 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.

Mehlis soon stepped down, as even the New York Times acknowledged that the conflicting accusations had given the investigation the feel of “a fictional spy thriller.” [NYT, Dec. 7, 2005]

Mehlis’s subsequent replacements backed away from his Syrian accusations. Brammertz began entertaining other investigative leads, examining a variety of possible motives and a number of potential perpetrators.

“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,” Brammertz’s own interim report said, according to a U.N. statement on June 14, 2006.

In other words, Brammertz had dumped Mehlis’s single-minded theory that had pinned the blame on senior Syrian security officials. Though Syria’s freewheeling intelligence services and their Lebanese cohorts remained on everyone’s suspect list, Brammertz adopted a far less confrontational and accusatory tone toward Syria.

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 U.N. probe.
Virtually nothing appeared in the U.S. news media that would alert the American people to the fact that the distinct impression they got in 2005 – that the Syrian government had engineered a terrorist bombing in Beirut – was now a whole lot fuzzier.

Instead, it remained common practice for the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream U.S. news media to continue citing the Mehlis report and referring to "Syrian officials implicated in Mr. Hariri's killing" without providing more context.

That pattern continued Sunday in Young’s article, with the online version linking to a 2005 story that trumpeted Mehlis’s initial report. Young and the Times cite no articles describing the subsequent collapse of Mehlis’s case.

Last year, the U.N. tribunal examining Hariri's murder and other terrorist acts in Lebanon acknowledged that it lacked the evidence to indict the four Lebanese security officials who had been held without formal charges since 2005. Finally, Judge Daniel Fransen of a special international tribunal ordered the four imprisoned security officials released.

In a similar situation – say, one that involved a U.S. ally – the release would have been viewed as proof of innocence or at least the absence of significant evidence of guilt.

In this case, however, the New York Times refused to acknowledge the obvious fact that the case against Syrian complicity was weak. Instead, the Times framed the development as underscoring “the legal pitfalls of a divisive international trial.” [NYT, April 30, 2009]

That stubbornly one-sided approach has now extended to the fifth anniversary of the Hariri slaying. Instead of acknowledging the flaws in Mehlis’s initial findings – or recognizing how recklessly premature those accusations were – the Times is now promoting a conspiracy theory that U.N. officials willfully tanked the investigation.

Yet the only conspiracy that Young’s article seems to corroborate is the one in which the Times and its editors relentlessly portray Muslim governments that are out of Washington’s favor as the “bad guys.”

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.  

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